I have worked with some incredible institutions as an artist…and some rotten apples. There are amazing benefits to partnering with established institutions and a few issues that happen from time to time. Yes, even museums and galleries can make mistakes when working with artists! In most cases, the institutions I partnered with were excellent and this advice is directly inspired by their professionalism. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned for institution/artist partnerships.
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Bait-and-Switch- Several art jobs or gigs I have held misrepresented their expectations or offerings. Other times, major aspects of the arrangement have been added or reneged. This is a bait-and-switch or an outright scam. No artist should undertake partnerships or projects unless there is written documentation like a contract, or even an email. Even with documentation, I have been yanked around with lies, glass ceilings, and false promises. Generally speaking, I am not obligated to reach standards the institution clearly cannot uphold. I have to make a living at some point and scams or bait-and-switches are not good business.
Marketing-Institutions should market the artists they hire. Aside from just posting on social media, call the papers to solicit an article or invite the press to the event. Hire a photographer or get your staff photographer to take photos and make a video. Dedicate a page on the company website to the artist partnership. If your company has a podcast or newsletter, include the artist. Organize a public or company event around the artist’s project. The institution should be active in ongoing marketing, otherwise what is the point for either party.
Mutual Business Benefits-Other than a sporadic paycheck for the artist, there needs to be a deeper business relationship established between the institution and the artist. For example, the institutions could sell some of the artist’s prints in their gift shop or buy a work of art for the office. They can call the artist back regularly for partnerships beyond art. Is the company having a lecture? Invite the artist to attend or even speak. Is there an enrichment workshop? Is the office doing a volunteer project? Invite the artist to join. Forging a lasting business relationship is the best outcome for institutions partnering with artists.
Professionalism-Institutions need to be professional at all times. The application process to secure an opportunity with an institution can be extensive (or expensive) and that should be met with an equally professional experience once the artist is hired. Contracts should be drafted and signed to initiate an artist’s services. If you are attempting to acquire the copyrights to an artist’s work…that is a legal process it’s not just a pinky swear! Sure, artists might do their work in paint splatted t-shirts and ripped jeans, but the operative word here is WORK. Artists are not the cool kids you hire to hang out with because they are there to work and earn a living. I have had to shut down so much giggling, gossiping, and extended chatting on various jobs because I had work to do and it wasn’t being taken seriously.
Checks should be delivered on time and ideally advanced payments should be remitted. Some artists might not have traditional banking or living situations, so institutions should consider paying cash wages to the artist with documentation. W2s can be offered to the artist ahead of time in the office! Anytime I have completed a W2, I have had to go FedEx or the library to find the form online and print it…despite the fact that I was just inside a museum office! Though I now keep my own W2s on file, institutions should have a drawer full of current forms and other paperwork.
Display the Art-This sounds like a given, but you would be surprised…artwork should be hung in the institution while the artist is collaborating. Ideally, the installation could be for a substantial period of time beyond the collaboration. What is the point of collaborating with an artist if their artwork is not on view? Even museums and art centers have made this mistake creating an unfortunate hierarchy of value between international artists and locals. Clear off a wall, corner, hallway…whatever! Institutions need to prepare for the artist’s arrival with a designated place to show their artwork.
The Artist is in Charge-For the time they are hired, the artist is in control of their project and participation. The artist is not a puppet nor a gold star on a bulletin board, they are seasoned professionals. Let the artist do their job. Many places collaborating with artists have never hosted an art workshop, dealt with children, or nailed a hole in a wall. Even most art institutions have very immature staff working there with no real job experience or artistic talent. In this case, an artist should not have to waste time bickering with inexperienced staff or pushing against stale, counterproductive rules. The artist should simply delegate what needs to be done and the staff should do comply. Most artists are actually not that difficult. People just resent listening to them resulting in tension and wasted time.
Do Not Ever Use Clip Art-Unless you licensed the clip art from the artist you are hiring, or unless the artist chooses to use it themselves, don’t use clip art in their project. In this vein, do not hang artwork made by other people in their designated space. Find another wall for it! I was hired to do a workshop and I had to write a lesson plan for the museum. I submitted original, hand-drawn templates for the guests to use. The museum literally hid them on a back table and printed out internet clip art in its place without telling me. I walked into the workshop early and saw clip art all over the table and had the SEARCH and ask around for my art. WTF.
Art and Alcohol Do Not have to Be Eternally Linked-It is possible for institutions to partner with artists without reducing them to glorified paint and sip entertainment. Try hosting an art event or partnering with an artist without alcohol and you will be surprised at the depth of community and togetherness that has been created. There are times when it is appropriate to include alcohol, like extensive outdoor or day long events. But, many times the alcohol consumption takes center stage and the artist is neglected.
Burning Bridges-The artist is not the one who lit the fire if they have been scammed or disrespected by the institution. Most artists are pegged as ‘difficult’ when they won’t let anyone take advantage of them for the sake of preserving a bridge. Anytime I ask someone to sign a contract…that I took time to write myself…I get accused of being shady. On what planet is a transparent contract, budget, invoice, and project plan shady. That kind of accusation is inappropriate and it means I was underestimated. That bridge should be blown up just to make sure you never feel tempted to cross it again.
*Please do not steal these ideas for your diversity seminars and blog posts without credited me.
Feel free to email me and invite me to speak at panels, lectures, or conferences about the topic.
Pleasant, Rae. Newsletter: Tips for Institutions Working with Artists. Dallas, TX: Pleasant Folk LLC, September 2019. www.pleasantfolk.com/newsletter/hardlessons