Municipal Agency and Artist Partnerships: A Strategy for Rebuilding the Future

by Pam Korza (Animating Democracy) and Kathryn McKinney (A Blade of Grass)

'In the throes of COVID-19’s devastating effects on artists and communities, many are looking ahead to make sure that art and artists are integral to the social, cultural, and economic recovery ahead. Mayors, public health agencies, parks departments, and municipal government alike will need creative strategies to address: collective trauma and healing, anxieties about reentering public space, literal redesign of public safety and event formats, and reinvention of systems to address gross inequities that have put many at risk. These, in addition to fueling the need for collective joy and celebration of the good that endures.

More than ever, artists are a skilled and potent force to partner with municipalities on these challenges. What do these collaborations look like? One example, is the Fargo Project, supported by the National Endowment for the Arts Our Town program [PDF] and profiled in the Municipal Artist Partnerships (MAP) guide. (More about the guide below.) The City of Fargo, North Dakota, through its Planning Department, partnered with ecological artist Jackie Brookner to transform an 18-acre stormwater retention basin into a multi-functional neighborhood commons through significant community involvement. Partners point to Brookner’s curiosity, her abilities as a connector, and her conversational approach as factors that made community members, volunteers, and city workers drop their guard and take collective ownership of the project. At the same time, city partners came to embrace a more open process, examine formulaic approaches, and lend and build their own creative capacities.

The practice of embedding artists within municipal government has gained momentum across the country, with numerous cities and towns creating dedicated artist-in-residency models. Projects from New York City to Boston, to Granite Falls, Minnesota, are proving the model scalable to municipalities of all sizes. To support the growing trend, Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts, and A Blade of Grass, a national nonprofit that supports socially engaged artists, created the Municipal-Artist Partnerships (MAP) guide with support from NEA Our Town, which is the agency’s creative placemaking grants program. Based upon research and interviews with two dozen experienced municipal staffers and artists, as well as third-party partner organizations such as local arts agencies, the MAP guide captures principles, best practices, impacts, and lessons learned. The evidence was clear—while each residency and project are unique, success depends on the quality of the relationship between the artist and the person with whom they are partnered in the civic agency. When partners invest in understanding each other's skills, needs, and language to clarify desired outcomes, and maintain a critical lens on issues of power, equity, and accountability, their projects have a much higher chance of both aesthetic and pragmatic success.

The MAP guide sheds light on how to enter collaborations from a relational rather than transactional approach. As a practical resource, it:

• introduces a spectrum of partnership/program models;
• features the voices of partners on common challenges and ways to approach them;
• underscores guiding values such as equity and fair compensation for artists’ professional expertise;
• offers profiles of partnerships, tools, model documents, and print and video resources from a number of remarkable partnerships; and
• testifies to the value-add and impact of engaging artists in municipal settings.

The online Municipal-Artist Partnership guide is designed for artists, municipal agency personnel, and intermediary organizations working with them. You can learn more about and access the guide for free here

Are you working on a creative placemaking project? Find the guidelines and application deadlines for applying for a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant here