Salon NOTEBOOK: Difficult Conversations: The Secret to Great Collaborations (and How to Avoid the Pitfalls)
by Zachary Whittenburg
Despite its subtitle, the first Chicago Dancemakers Forum Salon of 2012, on February 6 at the Chicago Cultural Center, was amicable. Polite. Despite its four panelists representing a broad range of collaborative endeavors, all seemed to be in general agreement about what does and doesn’t work when arts organizations join forces —— circle wagons? —— for collective survival.
Perhaps that’s because cooperation is integral to dance. When asked by local artist Isaac Fosl-van Wyke during the panel’s closing minutes, “What are the ways that you borrow from your creative practice in the boardroom?” the responses came swiftly and succinctly.
“I think that all artists bring that sensibility into the work that they do,” said panel moderator Peter Taub, director of performance programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art. “It’s very, very integrated.”
“We all have an idea that we want to bring to fruition,” responded choreographer Margi Cole, representing Flyspace, a consortium of five Chicago dance companies with female directors* preparing for its official launch this October. “We’ve been thinking about this process very much like making a dance.”
Carla Peterson, artistic director of New York Live Arts, said, “I can’t do the work that I do —— there’s no way I can do it —— if I’m not in continuous dialogue with artists, if I’m not talking with many artists over time. They help me think more creatively, and I can hear what they’re dealing with, so I can better advocate for them.”
“I have to wonder why this was so agreeable,” Taub said in conclusion. “Maybe we can argue with each other more during the reception.” I didn’t hear any arguments during the reception, either.
Earlier, Taub had followed up on Peterson’s mention of arts nonprofits —— including Dance Theater Workshop, half of what would become NYLA —— seeking stability in the ’80s and ’90s through investment in property. “Unless one owned real estate,” Peterson recalled, “one felt like one had no control over one’s destiny. DTW was under that spell.”
“Stability through facility,” Taub called it. “I [remember] breathing that air. It allowed people on the margins to say, ‘Yes, this is an alternative point of view, but it’s also a stable point of view.’ So, what might we think of collaboration in hindsight? We’re all thinking now that collaboration is the thing that will save us,” he mused. The equity offered by a permanent home once seemed adequate protection to its tenants from the vagaries of contributions, sponsorships, grants and earned income. Did the panelists know of any costs hidden in the bonds between their ventures?
Taub’s question went unanswered but, to be fair, no one on the panel claimed clairvoyance, either. And as far as investments go, why would one assume that fellow artists are no more reliable than a market built on subprime loans and credit default swaps? Citing 100 collective years of experience in artistic leadership, Cole said of her fellow Flyspace directors, “We want to hold on to that trust that we’re on the right track.”
In contrast, Peterson said that the creation of New York Live Arts “wasn’t about trust. For me, it was always about, Where is this going to be three, four, five years from now?”
Acknowledging that difficult conversations might not be happening in the moment but almost certainly were a part of each panelist’s experiences in the field, Taub observed that “trust doesn’t happen just because it’s good business. Trust may happen as a result of falling out, and then patching things back up.”
Another consortium with no shortage of cumulative flight-hours was represented by Chicago Human Rhythm Project artistic director Lane Alexander. The Collaborative Space for Sustainable Development, a resource-sharing venture to be centered around a facility for its six** member companies’ classes, rehearsals and administrative offices, came into being in 2010 as a result of “particularly dire” circumstances, he explained. “The long-term prospect for our field is one of resource deprivation.… Earned income,” from expanded and efficiently run education programs, “helps sustain things that require subsidy, primarily performance.” CHRP is for now lead partner in the project; Alexander noted the possibility that “organizations will grow on top of [the CSSD] platform, and grow out of it,” in three- to five-year cycles, the panel’s most explicit mention of limited-term collaboration.
“The way people are engaging with the arts is changing,” added Alexander, lifting his iPhone off of the table and waving it once. “The money that they spend to study dance is of more value than what they get out of sitting in the audience.… Our classes have grown and grown. Our audiences have not.”
It stands to reason that earned income becomes more dependable when rooted in revenues from those enrolling in long-term dance study, rather than in subscriptions and single-ticket sales to relatively niche live events. (And let’s not forget that the reigning low price for entertainment is now free.) CSSD members are in discussion, said Alexander, about which administrative positions it would make sense to combine; the facility’s inaugural companies, for example, saw no issues with sharing a bookkeeper, but fundraising and marketing were more difficult to discuss in collaborative terms. He finished by wondering aloud what six executive directors “each used to wearing six hats” might accomplish when their responsibilities are streamlined thanks to cooperation behind the curtain.
Only briefly touched upon but nevertheless at the logical end of many exchanges was the role money plays in a new paradigm of partnership in the arts. “We are project-based, without the need to create a profit,” said Dara Epison of the relationships that she coordinates for the Office of Civic Engagement at the University of Chicago, in communities around its campus on the city’s South Side. “Right now, a successful collaboration is the product itself, knowing that, in the future, these are people with whom we can work together.”
“Particularly in urban America,” Taub added, “we’re moving toward a barter economy. ‘I’ll fix your toilet if you do my database.’”
Those things said, there seemed to be agreement among the panelists that collaborations need not be fully reciprocal —— at least not in their early stages. “On a basic level,” said Epison about her work for the U of C, “it’s been about making space and resources accessible.… We’re using these collaborative environments to create advocates,” acknowledging what the venerable institution has to offer without expecting equal returns. “We put our resources on the table in the hope that, in the long term, the relationship evens out.”
“That asymmetry can be a powerful way to combine perspectives,” Taub replied. “It’s a collaboration of knowledge,” interjected Cole. Taub asked Epison what happens “when community partners turn it around and say, ‘This is what we want?’”
“Acknowledging and laying out individual goals is the only way to move forward,” she answered. Taub’s response elegantly summarized the exchange: “Brokering different understandings of what art and expression mean…and finding a space in which that can be understood on an ongoing basis, seems to me like it could be very rich.”
A case study in this kind of brokerage was offered by Peterson, who related key moments and discoveries during Dance Theater Workshop’s merger, finalized last year, with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Following a joint retreat by both organizations’ boards in Virginia, it was decided that “there was enough of an alignment” among their respective needs and strategies to tie the knot. “There’s an equity, even if there isn’t literally one on the dollars side,” Peterson explained, noting that BTJ/AZDC brought higher thresholds of financial support to the table, while DTW “kept an eye on a wider lens of artistic practice.” Each side “had to deal” with what it needed to let go, she remembered, adding that the process necessitated identifying those with “skills to guide people through very emotional and, in some cases, a minefield” of decisions, such as employees’ titles within NYLA, the venture’s graphic design signatures and other fine points.
Later, Taub asked, “Is there a moral or an emotional component to your collaborations?” Alexander answered by recalling discussions among CSSD members about which sacrifices were necessary “to get this off the ground and succeed.” Indeed, where one partner sees ballast another might smell a burden; especially in early stages, constant communication about priorities and needs is key. “In the beginning, it’s often just about being seen and heard,” confirmed Epison. “So much of my process is about carving out space.”
Toward the end of the discussion, CDF supporter Liz Liebman challenged the panel’s members from the audience to clarify how their enterprises qualified as “collaborations.”
“I’m not sure that ‘collaboration,’ in this moment, means what it’s usually meant,” she said. It was a salient point: With the exception of NYLA, the panelists’ examples seemed more like strategic partnerships than structural alloys. “It alarms me how the turn of this conversation has been so businessy,” she continued, “especially at a time that business is so broken.”
Taub noted that cross-pollination now occurs in both directions. “A lot of business culture is borrowing from and utilizing collaborative practices.”
* * *
In the spirit of continued dialogue, Taub encouraged all those present to attend upcoming town hall meetings for Chicago’s 2012 Cultural Plan, on February 15 at Columbia College Chicago (600 S Michigan Ave, 6–8pm); on February 16 at Nicholas Senn High School (5900 N Glenwood Ave, 6–8pm); on February 18 at the DuSable Museum of African American History (740 E 56th Pl, 10am–noon); and on February 21 at the National Museum of Mexican Art (1852 W 19th St, 6–8pm).
The Chicago Dancemakers Forum’s 2011–12 Salon series continues on March 26 with a discussion from 6–8pm on categorization and identity, Difficult Conversations: Do Labels Matter? at performance-art gallery DEFIBRILLATOR.
* Flyspace Consortium member organizations are the Dance COLEctive (Margi Cole, artistic director), Hedwig Dances (Jan Bartoszek, artistic director), Mordine & Co. Dance Theater (Shirley Mordine, artistic director) Same Planet Different World Dance Theatre (Joanna Rosenthal, artistic director) and Zephyr Dance (Michelle Kranicke, artistic director).
** The Collaborative Space for Sustainable Development’s partners are Chicago Human Rhythm Project (Lane Alexander, artistic director), Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago (Nan Giordano, artistic director), Kalapriya Foundation, Center for Indian Performing Arts (Pranita Jain, artistic director), Luna Negra Dance Theater (Gustavo Ramírez Sansano, artistic director), Ping Pong Productions (Alison Friedman, director) and River North Dance Chicago (Frank Chaves, artistic director), with consultation from Audience Architects.