ASC Partnerships Blog Series Post #5: Creating Common Ground and Language - Framing Community-Engaged Art

In this blog series we’d like to seed conversations about what meaningful community-engaged participatory arts for social change (ASC) partnerships can look like, how they can be effective and enriching, while also discussing some of the challenges and difficulties. The content of this series draws primarily on research conducted by Judith Marcuse (Principle Investigator on the ASC! Project) and Nicole Armos (ASC! Research Assistant) during the 2013-2019 Art for Social Change (ASC!) Research Project, but the content of these posts is meant only as a starting point.  
We want to hear your thoughts too! 

Read the other episodes in the series here: Post #1 Post #2 > Post #3 > Post #4 > Post #5 > Post #6 > Post #7 > Post #8 > Post #9

ASC Partnerships Blog Series Post #5: Creating Common Ground and Language - Framing Community-Engaged Art

Developing cross-sector partnerships often starts with making a case for how the arts can contribute to the mission of prospective partner organizations. In our research, ASC practitioners spoke of the “language game” – the need to reframe work in terms that are more familiar for partners or funders. They warned of the importance of “[making] the work sound relevant to the organization but also […] not just pandering.” Using language that a potential partner is already comfortable with can help with building trust, but it can also increase the risk of compromising the artistic or social change focus of the work.

Even when partners are interested in incorporating art into their work, we heard that they don’t always know where to start or may not be familiar with the possibilities or processes. One artist we spoke with held several preliminary meetings with their partner, to slowly “expand their vision of what an art form is,” discussing the range of disciplines that can be used in ASC work beyond visual art and helping the partner to develop the vocabulary for ASC work. Similarly, an artist we spoke with who works with Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre in seniors’ homes finds it important to introduce staff to the process and philosophy of this approach so they can help facilitate dialogue. In both of these examples, the artists were able to help others involved in the work develop the language they needed to be able to talk about ASC activities and impacts.

It is also often useful to discuss how the proposed project may relate to or differ from related fields that representatives from partner organizations may have heard of, such as art education or art therapy. Some ASC work may fit into these categories, but not all. Open discussion helps to ensure mutual agreement about the role of the artist and the objectives of a project. For example, when starting a project at a correctional facility, an artist we spoke with held several meetings with staff to differentiate the work from the facility’s creative industries training. These meetings revealed that, although the correctional facility expected that the artist would help inmates build a portfolio of work for professional galleries, the artist’s work was centred on promoting creative expression and sharing inmate’s perspectives with the world to help break down stereotypes.

Creating a Common Language

One of the great strengths of human languages is that words and their meanings can flex and change with time and context. Think of how the answer to, “What does a phone do?” would be different now than it was even 30 years ago. Unfortunately, one of the great weaknesses of human languages is that there’s no warning light to let you know when the person you’re in conversation with has a very different understanding of a critical word than you have.

While references to concrete items (“We’ll need 15 folding chairs”) are usually fairly clear, many of the most important terms used between partners in ASC work refer to much more abstract concepts: art, community-engagement, change, impact, etc. When you and others in your organization use certain words regularly and have a shared understanding of what they mean, it can be easy to forget that others may not use those words in the same way.

ASC work often takes place at the intersection between sectors, bringing together partners who have “different languages, different work cultures, different expectations, and […] different pressures to demonstrate impact.” Even terms like “collaboration” and “partnership” may mean fundamentally different things to different partners.1

Differences in use of language can also make differences loom larger than they really are. For instance, when a funder insists on quantitative metrics of reach, this may seem foreign and overly bureaucratic to artists or grassroots organizations…even though those same artists wouldn’t dream of not tracking attendance – a quantitative measure of reach.   Questions such as, “What might that look like?” can help translate organization or sector-specific language into concrete examples and activities, and this in turn, creates a more productive space in which to negotiate.

The practitioners we spoke with in our research strongly advocated for intentionally developing a shared language and understanding of the work with partners and funders during the initial planning stages of a project. “Almost every time that you are building an agreement or a practice together,” said one practitioner, “it’s good to go through that whole, maybe laborious, process of setting the terms, setting the definitions [asking] ‘Well, this is how I understand this, how do you understand it?’”  Including these negotiated definitions in written partnership agreements encourages all partners to think carefully about the definitions up front and provides an easy way to revisit them as the work progresses. 

When working with large organizations or institutions, it is also important to include the people who are on the ground, doing the work, such as artist-facilitators, marketing teams, or facility staff when setting the definitions, or, at the very least, ensure that they know what definitions you have agreed on!

We end today’s post with a few additional examples of terms that were mentioned often by our research participants as meaning very different things to different organizations:

 

                                        Participation                                                                     Well-being

                                        Engagement                                                                  Empowerment

                                         Impact                                                                              Youth

 

 

1Hemphill, S. & ACI Manitoba. (2016, October 21). The art of collaboration: Harnessing the power of partnerships https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6AY0WFrzYsI

           *Image Source UXmastery.com

Now it’s your turn: Have you encountered conflicting definitions for any of the terms we’ve listed? Are there other terms that have caused – or threatened to cause – confusion when working with partners?  Comment on Twitter and Facebook to share your experiences!

In our next post: We’ll attempt to scratch the surface of the complex issue of power dynamics in ASC partnerships. If this isn’t a topic you’ve considered, we hope to give you some things to think about…If it’s an issue you’re passionate about, we hope you’ll join in the discussion and share some of what you’ve experienced and learned.