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Hold ideas tight but hold methods loose: Cross-Discipline Collaboration

Theatre maker and creative learning events blogger Martin O’Connor reflects on a lively event, exploring the value of collaborating across arts and social, community and justice sectors.

Imagine that you’re working on a collaborative participatory project. You’re either a freelance artist or part of an organisation. Now imagine that the whole project is based on mistrust and unrealistic goals, where there is no clarity of roles and nothing will be people centred.

Imagine that you worked for someone who has all the control but no ears for listening; who says no to every suggestion; who mismanages funds; who brings animals to meetings. What if your collaboration consisted of working with partners who didn’t want to work with you, or past grievances influenced everything you did. Can you imagine if everyone involved changed his or her email address halfway through? Would you be up for regular games of jargon bingo? Would you want to be part of a Whatsapp group for every single issue that came up during the process?

These are the responses to the challenge of creating the worst possible conditions for a collaborative process. I’m hoping that all of your answers to these would be a resounding no, yet unfortunately there is some truth in all of them, and I imagine they have been called to mind through personal experience. But by going to the opposite extreme we can see clearly the need for good working practice in cross- artform collaboration. In some cases the opposite is very extreme, but not totally unrecognisable, and this helps us address the main issues.

How can we work together to create the best conditions for cross-sector collaboration?

The central question was addressed through short artist talks. Each artist used the visual medium to focus on their core principles of collaborative process and share their experiences. Here is a brief summary:

Participant as Partner: Andy Robertson (Hot Chocolate Trust)

Hot Chocolate Trust engages and builds relationships with under 21s in Dundee and supports them to identify and develop their own opportunities. For Andy, every participant interaction is a partnership, and he introduced us to three key concepts behind their practice:

Doodle and Stretch – to make space for young people to play without pressure of an output, and where those who doodle are encouraged to stretch and those who stretch are encouraged to doodle.

Consume vs. create – work with instead of putting things on for young people, and the belief that arts serve young people and not the other way around. Where the young people are audience, maker and curator.

Comfort and Panic – two extreme zones but where learning can take place in between. This can uncover some difficult themes and issues for exploration.

Collaborating with a charitable company: Josie Vallely (IRISS)

The Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services use the arts in various ways to access and make use of knowledge and research for service innovation and improvement. Vallely outlined the importance of shared language between sectors; encouraged shared responsibility; the issues surrounding resourcing artists; and taking risks when employing artists. Their recent document Co-Production Project Planner, with tools and a workbook, can be found here: https://www.iriss.org.uk/resources/tools/co-production-project-planner

Community collaboration: Karen Orr (Rig Arts) with Elaine Cannon and Jenny Speck

The Broomhill project in Greenock connected residents and artists, and used a creative approach in community housing to affect change. Tenants lobbied the housing minister and MPS, and put their concerns to partners including police, community council, and the housing association to highlight concerns, take part in architecture and design decisions and create the type of living space they longed for. Working with Rig Arts allowed residents to think creatively and reclaim space in the shopping centre and tower blocks to create an art flat, a community flat and a shop front where residents and artists can continue to work together.

Working with institutions: Jess Thorpe and Tashi Gore (Glas(s) Performance) with Michelle Anderton (Barnardo’s)

Glas(s) Performance highlighted the difficult but hugely rewarding process of working in HM Young Offenders Institution Polmont. Their statistics referenced the fact that 90% of young people in prison have been excluded from high school, and that a further 90% have experienced bereavement. Working in partnership with Barnardo’s offered the day-to-day support as well as long-term pastoral care that freelancers are often unable to provide. For Thorpe and Gore, working collaboratively brought separate expertise to an otherwise difficult context, which created a supportive space for the young men.

Two principals emerged as important in this participatory work. Firstly the importance of having someone in the role of a community officer or support worker that can effectively bridge the gap between artist and organisation; and secondly it was agreed that independent reviews from academic partners are a valuable resource in evidencing the impact of the artistic work that can be often be dismissed.

Mapping the Ways Forward

As a final exercise, Chrissie Ruckley from Creative Scotland and Rachel Blanche, Lecturer at Queen Margaret University asked participants to outline a map for the best way forward, and to address the question of the day: How can we work together to create the best conditions for cross-sector collaboration?

Amongst the range of work created were treasure maps, road maps, staircases, swirling circles, racing tracks and even a pot for making soup with different ingredients. It was a satisfying and positive outcome from a day filled with complex questions and challenging issues, and an antidote to the nightmare scenarios presented at the beginning.

This event is part of a series of events planned by Creative Scotland’s Creative Learning team taking place from November 2018 to March 2019. The events aim to inspire practice and support networking and skills development. For more information and to keep informed of events visit the Creative Learning events page.

This blog is based on the event Exploring Cross-Sector Collaboration, which took place at Discovery Point, Dundee on Monday 25 March 2019.