Innovating Through Artistry

The Power of Partnerships

In Author: Melissa Snoza, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS on May 6, 2009 at 9:31 am

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Chicago Arts Educators Forum event, titled “What is a Partnership?” CAEF is a fantastic new organization sponsored by the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, and formed by two like-minded Directors of Education: Merissa Shunk from Adventure Stage Chicago and Nicole Losurdo from The Auditorium Theater of Roosevelt University.

As the title would suggest, this was a day full of workshops centered around building successful partnerships in education. Lectures were led by accomplished experts, and breakout sessions gave smaller groups of participants the opportunity to explore topics in greater detail.

One of the most interesting breakout sessions I attended focused on this question:

What do we learn as organizations from partnering across disciplines?

Because cross-disciplinary collaboration is central to the mission of Fifth House, this is a subject that our staff explores on a daily basis. Participants wondered, “How do I select an effective collaborative partner? How do we split up our tasks? Who’s in charge? What if we have different work styles/speeds? How do we make these two art forms work together? Why bother doing this in the first place – it’s so much work!”

Why bother?

It’s the concept of 1 + 1 = MORE. When two organizations/people/artists/genres/subjects come together effectively, the result is usually more than the sum if its parts would suggest. Think of how your favorite scene in any movie would be without its soundtrack. Dry as toast? The music sets the mood, inspires emotion, and heightens the intensity of the scene. Put it all together, and you’re out of Kleenex.

From an educational standpoint, as many of the teaching artists and organizations participating in CAEF can attest to, arts integration in the classroom allows students to connect to core subjects and to the art form in deeper, more meaningful ways than if each were presented separately. These collaborations between artists and classroom teachers support diversity in learning, reaching students who were previously not engaged through more conventional means.

So, we know it’s worth it. But, the process is a challenge – often we see two groups of people who speak different languages, and even with the best of intentions, it can be difficult to iron out the logistics of making the planning stages run smoothly. Where do we begin?

First, find the right partner. The want ad for a collaborative partner would be daunting at best. You’re looking for an organization that achieves excellence in its art at the highest possible level. And, in most cases, organizations don’t form partnerships – people do. So, you’re looking for an individual who you…LIKE! You’ll be spending a lot of time with this person, so it should be someone who is open, responsive, and has a sense of humor (at least in a perfect world). It should be someone who answers your emails and phone calls in a timely enough fashion (read: not a time suck), and who is genuinely excited about the mutual end goal.

You’ve found your partner. How do you decide who does what, and who is in charge? Figure out what each organization brings to the party, and let them do what they do best without trying to fit them into a mold. The most successful artistic collaborations I’ve participated in resulted from the process of allowing artists to run with a general idea first, without too many boundaries or suggestions.

As an example, if we’re working with a dance company or a visual artist, it is not my place as a musician to dictate exactly what I want them to produce. We can start with a general concept, but in the best case we give the collaborative artist the freedom to take the ball as far as they want to run with it, then we merge back together once they’ve created something they are proud to call their own. Often, we come up with a project that is in many ways completely different from what we would have imagined ourselves, yet infinitely better.

In the classroom, we may come into a curriculum-integrated residency with some ideas in mind, but we generally have the teacher we are working with lay out some of the general learning goals and framework of the unit prior to collaborating on the design of our activities. They are, after all, the experts, and they know their audience better than we do. It’s at that point that we sit down together to answer the question, “how can music help students to better understand ocean ecosystems?”

Having a true partnership, rather than one organization that sub-contracts another, takes a significant amount of planning time. There are reasons that it takes us a year to program each subscription series we do prior to the first note we play, and most of them have to do with the increased amount of learning and communication that have to happen between organizations and disciplines. You have to know your partner and their strengths, and understand their timeframes in order to be successful.

As one of the keynote speakers pointed out, it is possible, and often a great experience, to work with a partner who is in some ways “difficult.” You may find an artist or organization who is phenomenal at what they do, but the partnership is limited by personality differences or work styles. These can still function as long as there is a way to find common ground, much in the same way as those of us who do PR work need to learn how each media contact prefers to be reached, and how NOT to call them when they are on deadline.

But, don’t get pulled into working with an organization that proves to be a time suck – one that doesn’t return calls, ignores emails, falls through repeatedly on commitments, and in general proves to be unreliable. This is an investment that never pays off, and the product always reflects the process.

In short, do what you do best, and allow others to do what they do best. Learn from each other, and keep your mind open to the new possibilities that arise – this is, after all, why you wanted to collaborate in the first place. Thanks again to CAEF for a great day of discussion – looking forward to the next session in October!

Melissa is the flutist and Executive Director of the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble. Like what you read here? For more music entrepreneurship tidbits, visit, brought to you by members of 5HE.

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