13 KEY PRINCIPLES FOR WORKING WITH ARTISTS

These tips for working with artists is an excerpt from Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy, an easy-to-read guidebook from The Culture Group. Making Waves aims to help grassroots and advocacy groups understand how to effectively work with artists and intentionally and wisely integrate arts, culture, and media into their work. For more resources on cultural strategy, please refer to our reading list here.

The following principles are designed to help organizations and organizers build an equitable, respectful, and effective partnership with artists and culture-makers; a relationship that is rewarding and inspiring for all parties involved.

1. INVOLVE ARTISTS FROM THE BEGINNING.

Engage artists from the very beginning of your process, not at the last minute or after a campaign or event is fully planned. Give them time to immerse themselves in the issue and create something of real quality. Who knows, by engaging them earlier they may also offer a game-changing idea that dramatically enhances the plan itself — you might end up building your entire campaign around a great song, video game or work of art. Art amplifies our struggle best when it is not merely used as decoration, but as part of the foundation of any plan or action. (And as with any relationship, clear and open communication is key, from the beginning and throughout the process.)

2. FIND THE RIGHT ARTIST.

Although this may seem like an obvious point, it is crucially important to partner with artists who have an authentic connection to the issues you are working on. Do your research! Also, think about your target audience. Who are you trying to reach? Is there an artist who is a natural fit for your audience? Think about identity and roots as you search for the right creative partner.

3. SUPPLY INFORMATION.

Provide the artist with raw materials to become well-versed in the issue, and get inspired: a breakdown of the issue, a few talking points, key facts, and the values and principles that motivate your work. Don’t assume the artist will know everything you know about the topic, so put them in close dialogue with people knowledgeable in other areas, like people who are affected by the broken policies, or academics who’ve done extensive research. Some artists like to immerse themselves in research and become an expert on an issue, and others prefer just enough material to develop a basic working knowledge.

4. MATCH THE MEDIUM.

Try not to choose artistic mediums because they are cool or trendy. Concentrate on the art forms that best suit the campaign you’re working on. For example, comedy allows for the safe exploration of taboo subjects, while film and TV offer opportunities to tell stories that create empathy and understanding.

5. CONSIDER WORKING WITH A CULTURAL PRODUCER.

Cultural producers are bilingual in art and advocacy. They are professionals who will understand your needs and goals, match you up with the right types of creators, and help you develop and manage the partnership. She or he also has the connections and know-how to help you access — and effectively work with — high-profile artists and cultural figures.

6. GET ORGANIZATIONAL BUY-IN.

Make sure your organization is fully on board with integrating arts and culture into your work, and that everyone understands that the project(s) will require an investment of staff time, budget, and other organizational resources. Also consider hosting a creative fellow, or creating a staff position, to focus on integrating cultural strategies into your organization’s work.

7. LET THE ARTIST LEAD IN THE CREATIVE.

The artist should always be the lead when it comes to creative matters. Trust the artist’s intuition and remember they are the experts in their area: reaching people emotionally and unleashing the public’s power and willingness to act. They need the flexibility and authority over the final product to make sure it works as effective art, music, or storytelling first. Nobody wants to hear political comedy if it’s not actually funny, or a political song that’s painful to listen to, so be sure not compromise the art in order to force the message. If it works as art, then the message it carries will travel further.

8. PAY THE ARTIST.

Artists are skilled laborers. They have years of professional training, so pay them them appropriately. (With actual money, not just “exposure.”) Also, be sure to allocate for related costs like supplies, production, and insurance. Artists should not be asked to work for free or reduced rates, unless you and your colleagues are doing the same.

9. CREDIT THE ARTIST.

Make sure to credit the artist wherever their work is featured. It’s not just their proper due, it also can imbue the work with greater authenticity. It tells the audience the work was created by an actual human being who genuinely cares about the issue.

10. BE CLEAR ABOUT OWNERSHIP.

Artists own their creations by default, so a licensing agreement is the proper business and legal framework to use (as opposed to a work-for-hire contractor’s agreement). As the owner, the artist is free to repurpose his or her work, but if you want exclusive rights to the work you can negotiate with the artist and pay a higher fee. (Making Waves is available under a Creative Commons license, so that’s another option to consider that can be fair and equitable for all concerned.)

11. UNDERSTAND THIS WORK TAKES TIME.

Be prepared to invest in a long term process of learning the best way to work with creators. It may take time and experimentation to get it right, but the organizations who take this process seriously will find that they are able to consistently produce great results, and that culture can dramatically amplify and transform the work they do.

12. HAVE A ROLL-OUT PLAN.

Have a plan ready to disseminate the art or cultural product in the public realm. You should have a plan and the budget for distribution and promotion, including a press strategy and a social media strategy — maybe even an advertising budget — and all the personnel and resources you’ll need to implement the plans. And make sure to plan that outreach strategy in partnership with the artist.

13. DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME.

Creating an effective, powerful work of art is not easy. Artists who do it are able to because they have spent years honing their craft. Trying to do it yourself might not produce the best results. Be willing to invest in real talent.

I help artists create change. jumpslide.com