In many tribal cultures, there is no word for ART. The creative act is in the shape of a context, the texture of relationships, the sounds of inquiry. It is how people are, not just what they make or do...creativity and connection, ceremony and ritual, the magic of the marketplace. ART is how we ARE.

I have written a book about arts-based community development that aspires to start conversation and support listening and learning from/about each other.  At that point, we bring in the action verbs: to think, fund, make, show, see, sell. Together, we consider the challenges of: reflection, documentation, and, finally, the evaluation of who and how WE are.

COLLABORATION IS NOT...  By Con Christeson

Excerpted from What Is...What If...Confronting and Configuring a Community Arts Practice. Images courtesy the author.

Language is ambiguous.  As a living thing, it is constantly adding and subtracting and changing.  Words are tools for sharing and processing, but they are often distant cousins to the actual concepts. And yet, it’s what we have.

In Mark Twain’s The Diary of Adam and Eve, Eve’s monologue contemplates the universe from her Garden of Eden perspective. At the end,  she says, “...but then I am the first woman to have examined these matters, so it could be that, in my inexperience, I haven’t got it right.”   The first humans and all of us since make up the only species capable of developing, discussing, and combining ideas. Effective dialogue depends on the definitions of terms.  Usually, we want to say exactly what it is.  Sometimes, we can be most clear by saying what it is not.

Collaboration is not the same as partnership.
Partners come to the table with resources and offer what is theirs to give,  theirs to take away. They see personal value in combining those resources in a partnership, even if the commitment may be limited or conditional. This ship usually sails with the expectation of a shared outcome i.e. make sure that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Collaboration is not competition.
Competition is often rooted in a scarcity model. It assumes limited resources, measurable outcomes, and finite audiences. I have mine.

You have yours.  Someone wins.  Someone else may win something too or lose altogether.

Collaboration is not predictable.
Predictability makes sense when it comes to buying good coffee or the stop sign at the corner.  It is not what we want in a good collaboration.

You want to learn, build relationships, have influence,  invest in process that can translate for the next challenge.

If there is no give and take, no recognition of the need for practice and balance...If there are no mystery ingredients, no surprises, no aha moments.... you have a story that nobody will want to read or hear. 

Collaboration is not karaoke.
Karaoke is a fine party game. It’s an opportunity to sing out loud in a bar to relieve stress and connect with others. Scrolling words and the bouncing ball balance out the stage fright. The reward is back slapping and friendly applause from friends and strangers.  In general, karaoke singers only practice in the shower and very likely do not get better over time.  There is really no need, no risk.

Collaboration exists.
It is whole and complete, even as it evolves and changes. It is built with attention to what is and intention for what it can become.  Of course, there is transaction. There are milestones to mark. There are outcomes to document.  But, most importantly, collaboration requires that we hold a space for it, despite challenges related to funding, participation, failures, in anticipation what we can do WITH not FOR each other.

In community engagement, in community development, I have seen true collaboration is the never-ending story of humans who fear less and take care of each other more.

When we engage in process, we learn about the many ways there are to ‘get it right.’

Con Christeson's book What Is...What If...Confronting and Configuring a Community Arts Practice is a limited edition work that is handmade, numbered, and signed by the artist. It is available for purchase from the Americans for the Arts bookstore.