From client to partner: can museums rethink their relationship status? An interview with Jake Barton from Local Projects

May, 14, 2019
Jake Barton Local Project Communciating the Museum

Most people working for a cultural institution understand how adopting a different approach can turn a regular project into a stellar one: focusing on audience-centered design or co-creating programs with local organizations for instance.

Yet there is one often overlooked opportunity to make meaningful and inventive projects: building a deeply collaborative relationship with the firms providing services to your institution. Jake Barton, founder of the acclaimed design firm Local Projects and speaker at the upcoming CTA conference, shares a few thoughts on why and how cultural institutions should shift from being just clients to real partners.

 

Preparation is paramount

“We spend an enormous amount of time looking at the strategic and foundational mission-based approach of our clients,” says Barton. From the get-go, the Local Projects team goes to great lengths to understand the raison d’être and the vision of their clients. In doing so, they get a sense of “the change of heart that the museum is trying to create in the world.” Barton is convinced that this solid foundation of mutual understanding leads to reciprocal creativity between the client and the firm, increasing the chances of achieving both fresh and relevant products. To ensure a smooth and balanced relationship, Barton and his team crafted a process that includes a charter based on the project’s core values and objectives. Both the Local Projects team and the cultural institution have this charter in mind, so if one or the other side “misbehaves”, doing something that isn’t beneficial to the project, they have the ability to point it out and get each other back on track.
 

 

Exploration is key

“Some institutions want to listen and explore while others don’t have the patience or the time for that; they only want a product, something that is finished and standard or something that is cheap, simple and solved.” As you may have guessed, the Local Projects team tends not to work with the latter kind of institution.
Barton explains that in order to stand out in today’s cultural landscape, institutions must offer something unique, that expresses their unique mission. Finding that uniqueness requires a high level of exploration, dialogue and discovery which only happens through real collaboration. “You can’t create something special and unique if you don’t approach your relationship with your contractor as a true partnership.”
 

 

Get personal …but not too much

Echoing what André Kraft (Komische Oper Berlin) had said about partnerships being akin to love relationships, Barton concedes that partnerships are very deep, and almost personal experiences.
“For the most part, our clients take things very personally,” he says. “They are not developing a new museum or cultural institution just because it needs to happen. It involves a lot of dreams, anxieties, passions and worries.” While emotions and personal commitment add meaningfulness to a project, Barton stresses how important it is to keep your objectives — and your shared charter — in mind. “You need to be committed to the overall success of the project which sometimes is above your own personal success or the success of the firm.” Honest communication and process transparency are great allies for institutions and firms embarking on long-term partnerships.

 
 
Jake Barton will be speaking at the upcoming Communicating the Arts conference taking place in Copenhagen, June 17-19. Besides creating breathtaking cultural experiences with his team, he has a passion for gelato and urban cycling. Join him and hundreds of visual and performing arts professionals getting together to exchange on the theme of “partnerships” within the cultural sector.