Best Practices for Working with Artists
By Josh Feldman
“Art, whether we are creating it, interpreting it or simply enjoying it, brings us closer to our authentic selves. It is a way of expressing, exploring, releasing, remembering,
dreaming and understanding.”
Lee Anne White
Partnering with artists is invaluable to Jewish organizations. Among the many reasons to do so include: artists will help your organizations attract new audiences (including the unaffiliated), explore the deepest and pressing struggles of the human condition and increase your relevancy and vibrancy.
Organizations struggle with how to cherish and partner with artists. I have seen this consistently in my work and have heard it over and over again from professionals working in Jewish institutions, as well as from the artists who partner with them. The best practices, shown below, are shared with tremendous love and affection for organizations, foundations and community leaders in Jewish life. They are in the spirit of constructive progress.
Top ten things to consider when approaching an artist to work on a project, commission, educational partnership or workshop:
- Artists are experts. Most of the artists I know have dedicated PHD quantities of time to their work. Honor this as you would other experts that you welcome into your institution.
- Offer generous compensation. Artists deserve compensation for their expertise and valuable contribution. Don’t ask them to work for free. Many artists are living close to or at the poverty line, and the ones who are making a living also deserve to be paid like professionals. Having trouble coming up with guidelines for compensation? Consult local arts professionals who work at museums, curate, or who work in educational settings. You are welcome to reach out to me too.
- Involve artists in process & product. Often artists are brought in for episodic programs. This is one great way to engage artists, but involving (and paying) them in the planning stages will bear wonderful and creative fruit. What is it like to co-create a curriculum, lesson plan or project instead of just asking an artist to fit into an existing project?
- Not all artists are educators. Though some artists are both artists and educators, others are experts in their fields but not necessarily in the classroom. Consider pairing non-educator artists with a compatible educator. Perhaps the artist is creating a project, while the educator is designing a lesson plan to simultaneously engage the community around their project.
- Great Jewish art can be about ideas and does not always contain overt Jewish content. I believe that great Jewish art can be about ideas, history or culture, which in many cases does not read as overtly Jewish. Instead of asking an artist, “What makes your work Jewish?” consider starting with “Tell me about this work/ series/ film. What are your influences?”
- Sometimes the artists come to you, sometimes you must go to the art. It is inspiring and exciting for art and culture to come into our organizations. That said, let us remember to also bring our communities to see, experience and explore creative practice in contemporary settings. Your institution can benefit from the powerful work happening in art galleries, museums, film festivals and more. Go experience it.
- Create clarity. Start and end each artistic engagement with clear understanding about roles and responsibilities. Draft and sign contracts at the beginning of the working relationship, laying out the exact arrangement. This protects your institution and the artist. It also creates a road map for what success looks like. Making the implicit explicit has powerful implications for process and product.
- Have fun. One of the best parts of my professional life has been my time working with artists. They teach me, they challenge my conception of the world, and they inspire me. Do not forget to enjoy the wonderful journey together!
- Find translators. Often I help translate between artists and institutions who may at times speak completely different languages. If you notice that you are having trouble communicating, find a community member who might help translate. My experience is that more often than not, a little translation makes conflict evaporate and inspiration flourish.
- Document and communicate. Remember to build documentation and communication with your community into your planning process. Often artist-led work brings in new audiences, starts new conversations and catalyzes new directions. Some of these processes will outlast short term projects with artists. Create short films (even if you just use a smart phone), take lots and lots of pictures and have a snappy writer document about the process as it goes along. As an example, check out Artist’s blog and video projects.
One might feel like their institution does not have the time, money or even interest to utilize these guidelines. Your organization’s return on its investment will be significant; the artists’ long term buy-in to your community institution will change, and vibrancy will seep out of your institution’s walls.
If you are looking for resources on the impact of the arts, start with these:
- The great Eliot Eisner on 10 Lessons the Arts Teach
- Mr. Randy Cohen’s Top 10 Reasons to Support the Arts
Here are a couple examples of organizations doing great work with artists. Note that this is not an attempt at a comprehensive list: Check out the 14th Street Y’s LABA Program, Asylum Artists, the SIJCC’s East Side Jews and Culture Lab; The SF JCC’s Art and Ideas series; Artis, GodCast, Reboot’s integration of writers into their new smart phone application Fridays (still in beta) and our own work at the Institute for Jewish Creativity.
Josh Feldman is the Director of the Institute for Jewish Creativity (IJC) and Assistant Dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education at American Jewish University. The IJC encourages artistic contributions to create an authentic, thriving American Jewish culture. The IJC is made possible through a generous Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, and with additional support from Naomi and Jeffrey Caspe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.