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This Is The Work: reflecting on new research findings about power in partnerships

A group of people talking in a circle at Rising Arts Agency's 'This Is The Work' event, surrounded by shelves of books at Bristol's Bookhaus bookshop.

How do power imbalances manifest in creative partnerships – and how do we remove the impact of these imbalances from our work? A radical, youthled organisation, Rising Arts Agency has been working with researcher Andreana Drencheva at King’s College London to investigate these questions. We learned more at This Is The Worka workshop reflecting on their findings.

Helping 18-30 year-olds mobilise creatively, Rising provides a space for marginalised practitioners to seek support in their work. In partnership with Andreana Drencheva, they have been researching power dynamics as part of the Centre for Cultural Value’s Collaborate programme. They have now published Power in Partnerships, a new zine that guides us through their findings.

Through their partnership, Rising and Drencheva have conducted a series of interviews with freelancers, grassroots collectives and cultural sector organisations. What their findings reveal are the subtle, systemic ways that power and influence can foster inequity in the cultural sector. 

“It’s important to note that power does not always flow downwards, in one direction”, Rising and Drencheva write. “It’s agile and constantly shifting”.

Imperfect partnerships

The complexity of power dynamics was a running theme of This Is The Work, a public workshop that Rising and Drencheva facilitated last December. The event was co-hosted by Alix Harris, Director of Beyond Face, whose work in theatre helps global majority artists build their creative work. As the Centre’s Content and Events Officer, I attended the workshop, which served as a reflective space and asked searching questions, such as:

  • Are we aware of our own influence, and can we recognise its impact on our collaborations?
  • How can we identify, address and remove the power dynamics that throw partnerships out of balance?
  • Do we think equitable partnerships can truly exist?

These provocations seem simple, but they illustrated the complexities embedded in the work we do. As we talked through them, we weighed up what we wanted the cultural sector to look like, versus what was actually in front of us.

Rising’s ethos is committed to marginalised members of the cultural sector, as well as the grassroots organisations trying to move it in new directions. At This Is The Work, they let these voices lead the conversation. Those who belonged to larger or more visible organisations, including funders, were asked to step back and listen.

As observers, we were given a window into the frustrations and anxieties grassroots workers have entering into partnerships. Rising invited speakers to make demands of their influential counterparts. “Just listen to us,” said one speaker.

Rising Arts Agency co-director Jess Bunyan leads a workshop discussion at 'This Is The Work', hosted at Bristol's Bookhaus bookshop, with attendees sat down and listening.
This Is The Work (Photo by Olu Osinoiki)

Understanding our influence

At This Is the Work, Rising and Drencheva made power dynamics a tangible reality – asking us not to think abstractly about influence, but to reflect on where we might fit into the sector’s hierarchy. We were asked to recognise our own level of influence, and how it might compare to those around us. We examined the structure of the cultural sector through ourselves thinking about the weight of our workplaces and roles, as well as the patterns we’ve watched play out in creative partnerships.

I was struck by the crossed paths of power that exist in what we do; when grassroots practitioners cross into organisational roles, they often occupy multiple sides of a power dynamic simultaneously. We also discussed the staying power of influence – how someone might be elevated to the role of director in an organisation, and then only take on director roles across the sector, creating a closed circuit. Perhaps we can address power imbalances by relinquishing our status echoing Rising’s commitment to changing their directorship every five years.

As we reckoned with power, and the potential ways it might be embedded in the work of our organisations, Rising and Drencheva demonstrated the complexities of their Collaborate research. If we aren’t aware of our own influence, how can we stop it from changing the nature of our creative partnerships? This Is The Work underlined many of the key insights that have been illustrated in their collaborative Power In Partnerships zine, including the need for transparency, selfreflection and an acknowledgment of power when we see it.

Power In Partnerships is available to read from Rising Arts Agency’s website.

More information about Rising’s Collaborate project with Andreana Drencheva is available from our website.

Photos by Olu Osinoiki

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