Collaboration - why bother?

Two of Grayson Perry's works, 'The Frivolous Now' (2011) and 'The Rosetta Vase' (2011), on either side of one of the British Museum's artefacts, an ancient Egyptian handle made in the form of the god Bes

During the last year or two no ‘buzz word bingo’ card for an arts conference would be complete without entries for ‘collaboration’ or ‘innovation’; these admirable attributes are to be found in power point presentations, mission statements, business plans and funding applications.  We are all, it seems, collaborators and innovators now.  I am, as you have probably realized by now, a bit cynical about this whole hearted embrace of these two ideas – not because I do not think that both are excellent ways of working to aspire to but because I am not convinced that everyone who uses these words understands what they mean and how to make them a reality.  Like anything else in life worth having, they both have a price and I am not sure that we are being honest with ourselves about the cost of collaboration or of innovation.

The rest of this blog looks at collaboration – innovation will have to wait for another day!

Collaboration is something of a catch-all expression: it covers everything from networking through the co-ordination shared resources to joint leadership and decision making which falls just short of legal merger.  Researchers have developed a very useful taxonomy – the five levels of collaboration.  What I find most striking about these levels is the great variety they encompass and how the relationship between reward (more impact and mission delivery) and risk (erosion of ‘sovereignty’) develops as the collaboration deepens and engages more and more of the partner organizations.

Given that collaborating is not risk-free why, from a business perspective, do it?

Collaboration allows you

  • To use resources (assets, skills, expertise and networks) you do not own and have not had to invest in developing.  This makes for a more flexible and adaptable cost base.
  • To provide a wider range of experiences for your staff and audiences
  • To make public investment go further
  • To address complicated and complex problems which you could not tackle alone.  (For example see this report by the Australian Public Service Commission on the delightfully entitled ‘wicked problems’)

It does not, in most cases, save you much money but it does allow you to access higher quality services or products that you might otherwise be able to.

Working with others is almost always harder than working alone.  It is particularly challenging in a sector that lacks the ‘objectivity’ of the profit motive and in which organizational identity is rooted in the uniqueness of an artistic offer.  Real joint working will always challenge the status quo as two or more ways of doing things collide.  Relationships will need to be negotiated and compromises made.  The need for clarity around both ends and means will shine a spotlight on existing and inherited practices and assumptions. 

True collaboration that brings real results is hard but it can be truly transformative.

During my research I found many examples of visual arts collaborating and co-operating to increase their impact and resilience.  The following are just a small sample of the many ‘species’ of collaborations that form a crucial component in the visual arts ecology.  Their origins, motivations and purposes are many. 

Professional networks and trade associations

Turning Point itself

VAGA

VAUK

NFASP

a-n AIR

A benchmarking club

MyCake

An invitation only club convened by a leading organisation

Plus TATE

A collaboration with other art forms based in the same city and borne out of the desire to respond to a very specific opportunity

LARC

A collaboration with other third sector organisations in the same county

Consortico

A joint venture with a commercial gallery based on personal contacts

Smiths Row

A collaboration between two university galleries led by a husband and wife team

Whitworth Art Gallery and The Manchester Museum 

The Turning Point network exists

to connect people working in the visual arts with each other, and with professionals in other fields around the world, in order to share information, ideas and resources.

It would be great if members of the network used this site to share their own collaboration stories, about why they collaborated, what worked, what didn't and what was learnt.

Thanks for reading

Susan