Heritage Site Collaboration—101 edition

In February, I gave a talk for the Cultureworks Coworking Philadelphia group (I am a member) about how historic sites can and should collaborate with artists and performers to mutual benefit. My co-working group is made up of a vast swath of the creative arts—dancers, videographers, architects, photographers, sculptors and opera presenters.  There are also a bunch of small nonprofit organizations too, that focus on classical music, marketing for artists, a lawyer who likes to work with nonprofits, and other consultants like me who have clients in both the government and nonprofit sectors.  Therefore, I was unsure about what I could actually say to my co-working colleagues who want to use historic sites as venues for performances or art pieces.

The blog post that resulted from my talk was calle 1011 on Heritage Site Collaboration, a fitting name for a complicated subject.

Are historic sites underperforming assets?

I believe that many heritage sites are under performing assets, in that they have spaces that are not used daily for mission related purposes that could be filled with performances or art installations.  Some sites have larger spaces that can be logically used for presentations or performances. Historic church buildings have sanctuaries and fellowship halls, or empty class room space that may only be used on Sunday.Partners for Sacred Places is piloting a project on just this subject right now.  House museums pose other problems because they are often filled to gills with furniture and other decorative objects/displays. But there might be spaces where artists can have pieces displayed. These sites offer grounds or landscapes that might also be venues for art pieces as well. Nevertheless, most sites do have spaces that can be venues for new art in old buildings.

For many people at this talk, which was held at the New Century Trust  on 13 and Locust St., the idea of working with an historic site or church is foreign.  They are artists first and foremost and not museum managers.  They don’t understand that moving furniture in an historic site is a big deal. Or, how much insurance costs. Or how to deal with crowd control. The physical surroundings of an authentic historic site is what may draw an artist to the site, but making the case to the site manager for an art installation or performance use, is another question.

Constraints and benefits

Historic sites have many constraints—most of which are size related because the site was often once a small home.  The grounds or the setting of an historic site, offer other possibilities because spaces can be large but the grounds cannot be disturbed because prehistory may be buried there.  The house is also a creation of a particular time and place, and this may offer other constraints about suitability of a project.  It is often said that architects thrive on constraints as it forces them to be more creative, and I suspect that artists may be the same. Thus small heritage properties may yield interesting opportunities for new art.

Make your case

My talk then was to try to make my audience understand that they must do some good research before they make their approach, and bring along some “party favors.”  According to the CultureWorks blog posts, I defined these “party favors” as “the elements that you bring to show the owners of a heritage site that you are indeed invested in the constraints, history and uniqueness of the space.”

Here are some elaborations on ideas I presented in February for artists that want to pitch a project to a heritage site owner:

Mission coherence—I talked about how artist-developed projects need to somehow touch on the mission of the historic site/venue, so that the owners understand that the artist has chosen the site for its authenticity and historic character.  Ideally, if the performance or the piece has a direct connection with the site, the artist will probably get a better  or more sympathetic audience from the site manager about their project or idea.

Site history and current neighborhood—Many sites are now located in fundamentally different neighborhoods than when the building was constructed.  Artists seeking to use that change can mount interesting and culturally relevant programs.  How the piece/performance matches the current community may help to make the historic site more relevant to the current neighborhood by participating in a contemporary art project. Historic sites are struggling to be relevant to today's audience. This might be a good angle to highlight in any artist's pitch.

Money— None of these projects can take place without financial support, and artists approaching historic sites must understand that they must bring along some funding to make the project work.  Understand there will be additional costs for security, insurance and wear and tear on the site during the performance or art piece.  Artists need to collaborate with the site on any funding applications and grants to assure that the costs to the site to host the piece are covered and provide a bit more to ensure the future preservation of the site/building

Appreciation —Historic sites like to know that they are appreciated (who does not?) by a nontraditional constituency.  Here artists and performers can make a real impact by showing how they can add life to a space and bring it new audiences.

Infrastructure and safety—these are essential.  New uses or users in old spaces can be jarring, but also wonderful.  The site still needs to be protected against damage so proper insurance is key.  Everyone should be concerned about protecting delicate historic fabric—be it wallpaper, decorative painting or precious fabrics for drapes and upholstery.  The more the artist/performer understands security and preservation concerns, the better.

Talk takes time--These projects take time to put together, to gain permissions from perhaps reluctant board members, time go gather financial support, time to install, time to dismantle and clean up. It will be far longer than both parties realize at the outset, so plan for far more time than you could ever imagine. Talk takes time.

We were fortunate to have Rev. Edward Sparkman of Shiloh Baptist Church in the audience, who offered a wonderful response to the question: “when do you want an artist to come to you, when they are just thinking about the idea or when it is pretty much ready to go?”  His response was when it was still in the planning stage.  This permits the heritage site manager/pastor to help shape the proposal to meet the needs/objections of the Board whether of a historic site, church or other venue at an historic building.  While Rev. Sparkman was not prompted to make his reply, I would have answered the question the same way, if it were posed to me.

After all, collaboration can only yield a win/win for all, when there is good communication, trust and good faith among all parties.