Funding bodies and universities prize collaboration with non-academic partners. But do they create the conditions for equitable relationships? Sara de Jong and Alena Pfoser argue that however inspiring and innovative artist-academic collaborations can be, it is necessary to critically interrogate the conditions under which such collaborations take place. Highlighting the effects of, different remuneration structures, audit cultures, and working timescales, they question benign readings of artist-academic collaborations that can easily turn collaboration into exploitation. They further propose that these challenges require a collective response, starting with honest appraisal; refusing to write project reports as celebratory success scripts and instead formulating collective demands for conditions in which equitable partnerships can flourish.
Artist-academic collaborations are fuelled by increasing institutional pressures to show the impact of research beyond the academy. Some academics have always worked at the crossroads of arts and academia, while for others the impact agenda has been a welcome nudge to develop exchanges with artists. Researchers with a social justice drive are often especially keen to team up with artists to make research more accessible and co-develop projects with various communities. But what if partnerships (re)produce inequalities? As we found in our own collaborative work, as part of the Tate Exchange Programme, the benefits of collaboration for one partner can be parasitical on the exploitation of the other. What counts as ‘beneficial’ in the first place, is often predefined by projects and funders rather than the needs of those undertaking the collaboration.
To better understand these challenges we reflected on our own experiences across two years of collaboration, examined correspondence, notes and working documents, and conducted follow-up conversations with participating artists. We situated our findings in the context of the institutional logics of the neoliberal university and art sector, their precarious work structures and career imperatives. Given the nature of our own collaborative work, we also wanted to recognise the uneven effects on BAME, migrant and refugee artists.
The first key tension we identify that negatively affects the equity of partners, are asymmetric remuneration structures. Following the increased focus on impact, universities and funding bodies have set up funding pots for impact and knowledge-exchange activities. In practice, these structures translate into academics writing funding applications for the collaboration, which include the financial compensation for the artists. From the start of a project, this division of labour creates asymmetries, as it means it is the university partner who administers the funding and makes decisions over its allocation. This tension is exacerbated by basic structural differences in payment: artists are often paid on a daily (freelance) rate, while academics have salaried jobs.
True co-production with academics is jeopardised when artists have to juggle multiple assignments to survive
Although an increasing number of academics are on precarious fixed-term contracts and such experiences can sensitise academics to these differences and promote solidarity with artists, this alone cannot remedy the basic structural difference of artists being paid daily rates, in contrast to academics full-time, if temporary, employment. True co-production with academics is jeopardised when artists have to juggle multiple assignments to survive. Consequently, remuneration structures directly affect the possibilities for exchange, as they can incentivise the ‘recycling’ of existing work, the minimising of engagement, or the self-exploitation of the artists.
The second challenge of collaboration is the audit culture of neoliberal academia. Collaboration needs openness and room for serendipity. This is at odds with demands to promise and then demonstrate specific deliverables as part of academic project proposals and impact case studies. Inspiration and discovery doesn’t ‘count’ as a success, if it cannot be made measurable. Academics listed on the funding applications that enable the collaboration, are not only responsible for ‘begging’ for money, but also for the subsequent ‘bragging’ about these quantifiable achievements. In the case of artist-academic collaborations, this often means that substantial energy is diverted to the reporting of audience reach and perceived change (=impact), documented largely through questionnaires and feedback forms.
Our own commitment to a broader conception of impact included making visible the process of collaboration. For instance, we documented the exchanges between artists and academics in published conversations in a special feature on the media platform openDemocracy. While this was rewarding, pluralising the outputs of our work added to already too high workloads and received little recognition within institutions that continued to place most value on traditional research outputs.
It is time to open the black box of collaboration and have a public discussion about the structural conditions that put collaborations at risk
The third challenge for collaborations relates to temporal asymmetries and the neoliberal acceleration of work. Grants and residencies that enable collaborative work often have very short time frames that stand in contrast to the time that is needed to discuss and develop ideas together. Academic work is traditionally slow, but it too has accelerated over recent years, aligning itself with the shorter timeframes of artists’ projects. Acceleration increases pressures, with both artists and academics working overtime and experiencing stress. The costs of these pressures are unevenly distributed, having, in our experience, a particular toll on migrant and refugee artists whose work draws on personal traumatic experiences of displacement and discrimination. While project partners can make an effort to care for each other, it is hard to escape the logic of performance, especially when caring for each other in this context can also facilitate further exploitation.
We are not the first to observe these challenges, but conversations about them often remain limited to the scope of a single project. It is time to open the black box of collaboration and have a public discussion about the structural conditions that put collaborations at risk. Collaborators might work hard to create positive, inspiring and caring partnerships, but remuneration structures and the pressures of audit culture, acceleration and the need to overpromise to obtain access to limited funding can’t be addressed at the level of individual projects alone. Structural barriers, symptomatic of the neoliberal academy and arts institutions, require a collective response. If institutions and funders value collaborations, they need to improve the standards of remuneration for artists, value the experimental nature of collaborations and their outcomes, foster longer-term collaborations and create incentives for partners to democratise decision-making processes. It is time to shift the onus back to the institutions that profit from collaborations away from the individuals who make these possible despite the odds.
This post draws on the authors’ co-authored article, ‘I’m not being paid for this conversation’: Uncovering the challenges of artist–academic collaborations in the neoliberal institution, published in the International Journal of Cultural Studies.
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Image credit: Adapted from Time is Money via Public Domain Vectors.