Alright, we’re back from our self-imposed blogging hiatus to talk a little bit about partnership as a transformative strategy for artists and arts organizations.

Enacting real change can be difficult; in fact, one could argue it always is (and maybe it’s supposed to be that way!). This is especially true of culture-producing entities, which are constrained by imbedded (and often conservative) practices and niche markets. Yet organizational change is a continuous and often necessary process, and institutions are beginning to explore new paths that will render them more efficient, effective, and impactful. I would posit partnership as a low-risk/high-reward strategy for change. For many performing artists, the concept of partnership is self evident in and even integral to their work, so why not carry this into the administration of their art? Think of partnership opportunities as a continuum, with collaboration on one side (a temporary pooling of resources to create a joint artistic product or event) and merger on the other (a permanent and legal amalgamation of two organizations and their operations). I know “merger” is often seen as a dirty word, but if more than one entity is producing a certain kind of  artistic work or delivering the same good or service to its audience, then a merger can be an effective way to streamline costs without distilling impact (just look at the Washington National Opera, which merged its administrative operations with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2010).

I recently read an article that explores the merger process in the Administrative Science Quarterly (ASQ), a journal geared toward management scholars (it sounds more highfalutin than it is, I promise!).[1] Written by a group of authors from Penn State, the essay—titled “Transitional Identity as a Facilitator of Organizational Identity Change during a Merger”—does a really nice job of explicating organizational change through the lens of a merger between two healthcare providers. I know this seems far afield for us arts folks, but the common organizational behaviors and strategies that constrain and enable change resonate across industries. According to the authors, when potential partners focus on their previous identities and internal processes, substantive change is unlikely to occur. However when partners are able to negotiate their individual needs to create a new, shared identity, change is more likely to stick. This is especially true in the context of a merger, which is as much a political negotiation between two partners as it is an exercise in rebranding.

No matter how deep a partnership you forge, your collective effort must be rooted in a mutually defined goal. Collaborate with organizations that share your values but boast a new and different skill set and/or consumer base. Stay true to yourself and your mission, but also invest in partnerships that can enhance the value you create for your constituents. If you maintain open lines of communication and build a sense of trust, partners can leverage strategic alliances (or even mergers) to enact wide-reaching change. Remember: if you enter the partnership process with a goal of simply surviving, paying no attention to the impact of or demand for your services, failure is practically guaranteed. Instead, increase your chances of success by focusing on your mission and the surrounding economic reality, using partnership as a tool to refine the delivery of that mission and the operational structure behind it.

[1] Shawn M. Clark, Dennis A. Gioia, David J. Ketchen, Jr., and James B. Thomas, “Transitional Identity as a Facilitator of Organizational Identity Change during a Merger,” Administrative Science Quarterly 55, No. 3 (September 2010): 397–438.