The Power of Partnerships in Placemaking
Small places typically have small financial resources. That certainly describes the environment for Jay County (population 21,253), where Arts Place started in 1967. Small also often translates into limited audiences if an organization cannot reach beyond its traditional boundaries.
One way Arts Place has found to hurdle these obstacles has been to partner with our neighboring rural communities to create economies of scale. This approach also breaks some of the isolation natural to making the arts happen in places outside the urban mainstream.
Partnerships and collaborations have become second nature to Arts Place. While survival may have stimulated our early efforts, the benefits of such an approach have made reaching out to other communities and organizations our preferred way of making the arts happen.
Partnerships can be as simple as offering the same program in multiple communities. For example, Arts in the Parks, a series of summer workshops and community projects for children, requires significant overhead for planning, fund raising, and management during the program. But, by spreading the overhead amongst more than a dozen communities in five counties we created a more cost effective program.
For the smallest communities hosting Arts in the Parks, such as Fort Recovery, Ohio (population 1,430), it makes a program feasible that otherwise would not take place in such a small community. For larger towns, such as Portland (population 6,260), it enables Arts in the Parks to be far more vibrant in quality and varied in content.
Capitalizing on economies of scale can be much more far-reaching. Our most extensive partnerships have come about with the development of multiple arts centers under the Arts Place umbrella. We now operate three centers ranging in size from a few thousand square feet to over 21,000.
Our original center in Portland was first dedicated in 1983 and expanded in 2000. In 2005, after 10 months of discussions initiated by the St. Marys, Ohio community (population 8,272), we took on the already existing Collective Center. The model worked well enough to lead to the dedication of a third center in Hartford City, Indiana (population 6,091) in January 2013 (www.artsland.org).
Of course, there are many other types of partnerships and collaborations that can be created by rural arts organizations. Those arts groups that present performing artists will be well aware of the advantages of block booking. Often the impetus for block booking starts with the artist representative. Yet, it’s just as viable coming from presenters working together to bring down the cost and/or increase the scope and impact of the tour. Statewide presenter organizations foster such arrangements, but a few small arts organizations working together can achieve the same goal.
For Arts Place, the keys to success for our partnerships and collaborations have been:
1) Balancing a healthy sense of local ownership with some centralized planning
2) Accepting that collaboration requires more time than unilateral action,
3) A healthy dose of thinking outside the box.
A local sense of ownership is critical to the long-term success of our partnerships. Whether it’s providing Arts in the Parks in a village of 600 or operating an arts center in a town of more than 8,000, the participating community’s residents must sense they have a hand and stake in its direction and future. Otherwise, the effort will ultimately fail as community interest in providing financial, volunteer, and leadership support will fade away after the initial enthusiasm.
One of the ways Arts Place nurtures local ownership for its arts centers is to require each one to maintain an active community board. To the extent practicable, the community board operates as a quasi-independent organization, decides which programs it wishes to offer, proposes a local budget, conducts fund raising efforts, and builds local interest and involvement. The corporate board, with directors from around our service area, approves budgets, market image, staffing, systems, and policies.
Successful partnerships demand that multiple viewpoints be explored and respected. The needs of the rural communities we serve are similar. But, they are not exactly the same. For example, the economic environment in each of the cities where Arts Place maintains centers is tremendously different, ranging from relatively affluent to severely distressed. Those differences in and of themselves require ironing out consistent policies that are both fair and appropriate to each community’s circumstances.
Among the great benefits of partnerships we’ve seen have been the interchange of ideas, the expanded pool of talent, and greatly increased connections with people and organizations. With new partnerships we find those organizations with long-time experience for an effort provide systems and wisdom, while those just getting started bring a fresh perspective and often a limitless enthusiasm (for sometimes not knowing what you’re unable to do means you can).
What other kinds of partnerships and collaborations are rural arts organizations doing around the country? For those of you already so engaged, what hurdles have you found to be the most challenging?
In addition to responding to this blog in the comments section, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 260-726-4809.