The Art of the Alliance

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

Arts councils are a singular and often misunderstood breed. I often get asked what they are, what they do, and why they are important. Over the past two years I’ve twice traveled to San Diego to participate in a movement to create one in that county, and the role of an arts council is one I’m asked about frequently both when I present in public, and when I talk about my job one-on-one. I always speak passionately about arts education, advocacy, programs, and grants, but the one thing that truly inspires audiences whenever I discuss the unique role an arts council can play is when I talk about the Cultural Council Associates.

The CC Associates is a group convened by the Cultural Council that consists of 50+ arts-related organizations from throughout Santa Cruz County. We gather every other month to share stories, network, and learn from one another. We start the meetings with “One Big Thing”: each organization representative shares the biggest thing coming down the pike. Sometimes it’s an event; sometimes it’s a major grant; sometimes it’s a need; and sometimes it’s a call to action. But it’s always inspiring.

We then discuss any major issues in our field (opportunities, news about public funding, advocacy efforts), and end with a short “skill share” where one of the Associates steps up to share a technical tool or technique that they’ve found useful. The “skill share” is a powerful element of the meeting, as they are usually something that can immediately be put to use, as needed, by organizations both large and small.

Our biggest Associates meeting challenge is also one of its greatest assets. Many of these folks have been working together in this community for years, and they have much to chat about – so getting the meetings started always takes a few minutes and some enthusiastic gavel-pounding.

Sounds dreamy, doesn’t it? Well, it is. It is a very special group and was the tipping point for me when I was considering whether I would move to Santa Cruz to join this arts community. And I’m also learning just how rare this kind of group is. Almost everywhere I go, when I talk with other arts leaders, I hear about the competition amongst arts organizations that ranges from friendly rivalry to outright enmity. At my previous job, I worked incredibly hard to create a similar alliance, and found the task to be next to impossible. Personalities clashed, old grudges interfered, and some organizations declared outright that they weren’t interested in working with one another.

Granted, that community doesn’t have the same kind of public funding and comparatively robust support that the Santa Cruz arts sector is so fortunate to enjoy. It’s terribly hard for a nonprofit arts organization to thrive in an environment of incredibly scarce resources, and when you are worried every single day about keeping the doors open, it can be hard to also open your heart and mind to others in a similar circumstance. Because this isn’t about organizations, really: it’s about the people who work in them, and whether or not they have the interest, ability, and capacity to come together.

Thomas Cott once again read my mind on this and posted a number of articles about alliances, including this one about a movement in Palm Coast, Florida. The challenges are familiar: “Efforts to bring people together can also earn the ire of those they’re supposed to be helping…No one wants to be told by another arts organization what to do… People fear for their own turf.”

I have the great fortune to have simply waltzed into a situation that was the stuff of my dreams: a strong arts community that values cooperation, collaboration, and communication. We aren’t perfect, but we have a terrific model. I believe that just about any community can make this happen. But there is groundwork that needs to be laid and thoughtful steps to take, which might look something like this:

  1. Determine a neutral body – or one that is as neutral as possible – to coordinate the effort. Arts councils are often perfectly poised to make it happen. Although the arts council might receive funding from the same sources as other alliance members, the mission of a council is so specific and discrete that it may have a better shot at bringing folks together.
  2. Don’t try to create an arts alliance in a vacuum. Potential alliance members should consider partnerships and volunteer opportunities outside of the arts sector that could positively benefit the alliance. This could mean getting involved with the local Convention & Visitor’s Council, Chambers of Commerce, service clubs, etc. This will take time, but only by getting involved will you be able to give the alliance legs – and you will also be able to actively advocate for and demonstrate the impact of the arts.
  3. Get your local governments on board. Having representatives from city/county arts programs (if they exist) are key to legitimizing the efforts of an alliance – and can be a fast-track way to assist in advocacy when issues arise. Regularly show up to speak about the alliance and its benefits and collective impact during public comment at city council/county supervisor meetings.
  4. Be sure to reach out to organizations and groups large and small to be a part of the alliance. If only big dogs are invited, it may appear elitist, and you run the risk of missing out on the innovations of the smaller or emerging groups out there. Plus, the opportunities for collaborations will be greatly diminished, and the experience won’t be nearly as rich.
  5. Start by having a “there there” – some grand reason to get together, be it an event, an opportunity, a speaker, something to get folks in the door the first time. And then ask those folks what would make them keep coming.
  6. Meet somewhere that is big enough to accommodate everyone, ideally in a creative venue.
  7. Bring snacks. And coffee.
  8. Have a Chair and a Vice Chair who together coordinate and run the meetings. Have these offices rotate annually, so lots of folks get the opportunity to provide leadership.
  9. Choose something that all of the alliance members can get involved in. The Cultural Council Associates have the Gail Rich Awards, in partnership with the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
  10. Create (and then disband, as needed) committees if specific tasks or projects come up. The Associates has an ongoing Professional Development Committee, as well as a Gail Rich Committee that meets only when it’s time to plan the event.
  11. Keep meetings short and entertaining. Find a way (such as the “One Big Thing”) to always get everyone’s voice in the room. Don’t meet too often. (The Associates meet every other month.)
  12. Stay in touch via social media. The Associates has a Facebook page where folks post cool stuff pretty regularly.
  13. Did I mention to bring snacks?
  14. Have the long view. If it’s slow to start, keep trucking. Thirty years from now you may have a robust and exciting group of people that love to see each other every other month. And that’s a fantastic gift you can give your successors.

I’ll continue to champion arts councils wherever I go. But I’ll also sing the praises of the Cultural Council Associates, because I strongly believe they are a major part of what makes this community so fantastic. We at the Council may hold the knitting needles that bring the yarns together, but it’s the Associates that make the gorgeous, colorful, and vibrant blanket that covers this community in creativity.

2 thoughts on “The Art of the Alliance

  1. Mark Sachau says:

    Great to have you back Michelle and thinking deeply about the arts once again. Regards, Mark.

  2. Betsy Andersen says:

    I am book marking this page and the others too. Thanks for your thoughts,
    Betsy

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