The art of collaboration

Jessica Tran, Arts Hub, [11th December, 2017]

Five years after a group of small to medium arts organisations in Melbourne’s west joined forces, they share their learnings with the sector.

Collaboration, like innovation, is a concept frequently invoked but not often defined. In Australia’s small to medium arts sector, the idea of collaboration is encouraged and supported by major funding bodies, investors and organisations, who see it as a mechanism for more efficient use of limited resources and increased impact. But these collaborations are often project oriented, output focused and finite. Strategic collaborations – where many of the benefits of efficiency, increased capacity and impact occur – are long-term, intensive commitments centred on mutual goals. They require significant investments of time, resources and emotion by all involved.

In 2012, a group of nine small to medium arts organisations based in Melbourne, Australia began a collaborative marketing project, initially supported by Creative Victoria’s Collaborative Arts Marketing Initiative (CAMI). At the time, conversations in the national arts sector emphasised earned income, sustainability and shared services as a response to concerns about shrinking audiences and cuts in government funding to organisations. Now established as Arts West, the group hopes to share their experience of the past five years for the benefit of other small to medium organisations who want to know how collaboration works in practice.

Read: Is the Arts West alliance the way of the future? 

This excerpt from the recently launched Arts West Collaboration in Practice Guide shows how transformation on an organisational and individual level is possible, but it is also demanding on everyone involved. If you are interested in this way of working, be prepared to experiment, negotiate, reflect and revise your project, and to manage the uncertain nature of collaboration with openness and generosity.

Sustaining Collaborations

‘It helps if it can sit with a consistent group of people (across organisations) but that’s not always realistic. Organisations have different capacities, interests and therefore, levels of commitment in the context of project areas and workflow.’ Jade Lillie, Footscray Community Arts Centre

A collaboration is only as strong as the skills, knowledge and resources it contains or can bring in, and the relationships it builds as a result. Arts West created additional (significant) workloads for each member involved and impacted on each organisation in different ways. It also attracted substantial external resources that sustained the collaboration beyond the pilot project, and embedded it as a way of working with members of the collective.

The initial activities of Arts West focused on building up the skills and knowledge of the member organisations, figuring out how to work together and positioning the collaborative within the wider arts and community landscape. Most of the early activities of the group required very little monetary resources to achieve, but funds were essential to attract membership in the first place, and enabled the group to engage marketing expertise as well as run campaigns. There was also one big-ticket item: a CRM database for each organisation, and a shared database to report collectively on audiences. In 2015, Arts West was at the end of the two year pilot seed funded by Creative Victoria and sustained by Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation and Gandel Philanthropy. By this stage, many members of the group looked to Arts West to extend their professional development and marketing budgets—in some organisations, Arts West was the entirety of these budgets—and the collective power of the group provided access to policy-makers and government decisionmakers. At a strategic planning meeting that year, the group agreed that the collaboration could continue in a reduced form with member contributions alone, but there were some ideas and projects still unfinished that required extra resources. This included the shared CRM, a project that alternately motivated and frustrated member organisations. A successful proposal was made to Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation and Gandel Philanthropy to remain as investment partners for another three years. As with any membership organisation, there were periods of flux as organisations moved strategically away from the goals of the alliance, new staff joined or organisational context shifted.

In Arts West, where the work is shared and the contributions of each member are significant to the group as a whole, these shifts occasionally caused conflict and stagnation. Slow progress wasn’t always a result of organisations pulling away. Sometimes members were not able to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the collective because of capacity and time constraints. Arts West succeeded where it became an extension of organisational activities, where individuals acted as communicators and ambassadors within their own organisations—championing the collaboration to colleagues and to boards, and communicating the benefits of the collaboration to their participants, audiences and artists. These benefits were not always the same for each organisation. Successful outcomes varied in scale and affected organisations in different ways. Rather than demonstrating a failure of collaboration, these differences show the negotiation and compromise that is necessary for a sustained collaborative project. Despite being a key goal of the initial project, the shared CRM database is not yet in place. This particular goal benefited the larger organisations in the collective more than the smaller ones, and those with more diverse income structures over organisations reliant on one or two sources of funding. This disparity in outcome made bringing the group together on this a difficult process: there was low engagement in what was already an overly technical project and the benefits for many appeared slight and distant. In 2016, organisations agreed that shared data was the key focus of this project and members were able to negotiate their contribution without implementing the same CRM database as everyone else.

In other areas, sustainable collaboration was fostered through shared experience and common ground. One of the continued strengths of the collective is the capacity it provides members to act on broader issues and the environment in which individual organisations operate. The closure of Big West in 2016 demonstrated the powerful voice available to the group and the benefits of sharing that work and responsibility, with Arts West advocating to multiple levels of government, funders and the community for the investment to remain in arts and the local community. This would not have been possible without the trust and openness the collaboration fostered amongst the group. In the Arts West experience, strategic collaboration requires a deliberate, purposeful orientation towards mutual gain and appetite for experimentation. The key learnings shared here should be used with the understanding that a collaboration is unique to its participants and requires a deep, lasting commitment to collective benefits and vision.

‘The most valuable part of the alliance is the networking, information sharing between organisations and collective influence we bring to critical issues as a group of organisations’. Brad Spolding, The SUBSTATION


  • Accept that there will be periods of slow progress because shifts in organisational priorities affect the resources and contributions made to the collective.
  • Keep your strategic goals on the horizon, but make small, achievable steps towards it and celebrate those wins.
  • Individuals need to advocate for the collaboration within their own organisations. The collaboration should also support individuals to do this work: through clear documentation, communication and through their own relationships and networks if necessary.
  • The challenge here is to remain flexible—can you accommodate a variance in values/vision/ mission within member organisations as long as the ultimate collective goal is shared?
  • Membership within the alliance changed as organisations moved strategically away from the goals of the alliance, or organisational context changed. Have clear process for commitment and discussing changing engagement within the group—you are all there by choice.
  • Do you all agree on the level of experimentation and risk you are willing to take on? Ensure you build in review points as this can change with shifting contexts.
  • Similarly, how do you communicate about activities, as well as shifts in resources and capacity within the group? Don’t be afraid to try a few different tools, especially if they are not working. Communicate: early, often and with clarity of purpose.
  • If your collective is arranged around a common set of values, then consider what advocacy positions you a) would like to take as a group and b) others will expect you to answer as a group. Clarity on what is an individual or collective response is crucial.


If there is one piece of wisdom Arts West would unanimously share, it’s whatever your first collaborative project is, make it measurable and achievable. For Arts West, a key deliverable of the collective was a shared customer relationship management (CRM) database. Intuitively the organisations assumed they had audiences in common, but was this actually the case? There was very little data collected by each organisation on their own audiences, and what did exist was inconsistent and not standardised. The move towards a more data-driven audience development and marketing model was informed by shifts in the broader sector and increasing competition for smaller pools of funding. Diversifying income included monetising audiences, whether in fee-for-service models or sponsorship-based partnerships, and wider marketing trends required quantified knowledge of those audiences. Collectively, the group decided to setup their own Salesforce databases with standardised fields, and connect them to a shared database. This would be used to report on audiences and to inform strategic marketing activity. Salesforce is a global company that make their database software available on limited licences to not-for-profit organisations. Other small to medium arts organisations in the area had implemented Salesforce, and there appeared to be a wealth of resources to support customisation.

In February 2014, Arts West believed that it would take them only 6 months to complete a database setup, data migration, training for each organisation and implementation of sharing protocols. As of June 2017, the implementation and use of databases across each organisation is variable and inconsistent, but there are successful instances of Salesforce use within three Arts West organisations. This is not the result of a lack of external expertise or resources. Over three years, two consultants provided technical and learning support to the group, members sought advice from arts organisations outside the collective on their experiences of implementation and Salesforce made resources and networks available specifically tailored to arts/not-for-profit organisations. Rather, there was difficulty translating the template knowledge in to specific action, and all organisations struggled with the systemic change it required to their existing processes. The differences between organisations in approach and capacity meant that this project was difficult to manage in a uniform way. Footscray Community Arts Centre led the project: as the largest organisation it made sense that their database setup could be adapted and used as a template for the other organisations. This appeared to be a straightforward solution, but the collective was unprepared for just how experimental this approach to a database system was.

Prior to joining Arts West, 100 Story Building had already begun implementing a Salesforce database. With the external expertise and professional learning on offer through the collective, they delayed their own setup and learning, hoping to pick up again with the Arts West training, only to find that the template database undid all the work they’d done previously. Sitting independently within a larger organisation, cohealth Arts Generator saw the benefits to a shared database, but found it difficult to integrate a complex system in to a larger process they had little control over, and to prioritise learning and development of the database. Western Edge Youth Arts, a similarly small organisation, did not have the same issue with a large parent organisation, but was not always able to take advantage of the shared development opportunities as they were scheduled. These experiences mirrored that of other organisations: implementation and skills-building was inconsistent across the group and meant the idea of a shared database moved further and further in to the future. Member organisations clashed with each other about what information they could/should even collect. Audiences and audience development meant different things to each of them.

The collective also found it difficult to contract experts who were able to work on the multiple levels the organisations required: collaboratively, with both a big picture and a detailed view, and within an arts/not-for-profit context. In hindsight, this particular database may not have been the best choice for all the organisations, and more time spent in understanding the organisational needs may have led the group to alternative database setups. Certainly, it was a complex project that the collaboration was unprepared to deliver on, and smaller, achievable actions could have supported the development of shared audience data more effectively. While the initial purpose of the database project— collective analysis of audiences from a shared data source—is still a distant goal, the benefit to the organisations of undertaking this process should not be underestimated. Without the support of the group, most of the organisations would not have had the resources to research, implement and train staff in professional sales and marketing tools of this scale. Where it has been taken up, the success is certainly attributable to the collective power of Arts West.

About Arts West

Arts West is a unique alliance of arts organisations who together reflect the exciting, vibrant and ever expanding arts and culture thriving in Melbourne’s west. Since 2012, this collaboration has seen nine community-engaged organisations share their skills and resources to build capacity and power together. The current members of the Arts West alliance are 100 Story Building, cohealth Arts Generator, Footscray Community Arts Centre, Snuff Puppets, The Substation, Western Edge Youth Arts and Women's Circus. 

The Arts West Collaboration in Practice Guide is available at

First published on Monday 11 December, 2017