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Collaborating with international partners can be rewarding, but how do you start? Emma Crook shares her expertise, from making contact and overcoming barriers to getting support.

Photo of three artists leaning over a desk with artwork
An artists' workshop in Valparaiso, Chile

Alejandro Délano Águila, Crúo

Developing an international collaboration requires time, patience, drive and resilience. It is therefore important to figure out the ‘why’ and ‘where’ before anything else.

Why? There may be a variety of reasons to collaborate internationally: diversifying income streams, broadening horizons, audience development, international recognition, available funding, strategic objectives and so on. In my experience, it is easiest to find compatible partners and establish long-term collaborative relationships when there is a genuine desire to learn and create together. Whatever your reason, remember that this will inform most of your choices going forward.

The test of the suitability of a partnership should not be during the delivery phase

Where? Consider the following questions to help you choose a location:

  • Is there international work that has inspired you?
  • Is there a place whose political or social context aligns with your individual or company’s interests?
  • Do you have existing contacts?

Avoid simply asking where funding is currently being directed. Choices driven by what motivates and excites you artistically will make your collaboration smoother, more rewarding and successful.

Clarity on the why and where will give you a solid base to begin exploring appropriate partners.

Making contact

When I arrived in Chile two years ago I knew no one, but if you’re lucky enough to have a contact, even a friend of a friend, use it. However, if like me you’re starting from scratch use the internet, social media, professional and personal networks, talk to your board, the arts councils and British Council (UK and abroad). Go beyond websites, read reviews and evaluations, view videos and online work. This should give you enough information to compile a priority list of potential partners. Alternatively, you could work with a consultant with local knowledge to help you conduct the research.

I’ve had a lot of experience ‘cold emailing’ cultural organisations and this method has produced an 80% response rate. First, get a name and email address of a person in a decision-making role. Second, write in their language (unless the country is renowned for speaking English, such as the Netherlands). If you don’t speak the language use Google Translate, and just let the person know you’ve used it and include the English version. If you have a website, include the link. If you’re an artist attach your CV (ideally translated), or a current annual report if you’re an organisation. Reference specific work or projects of the potential partner and how these relate to your experiences. All this in a short email.

Once you’ve exchanged a couple of emails, arrange a Skype meeting. One video call will tell you more about your potential partner than any number of emails. The focus should be on sharing sufficient information about each other’s work, ambitions and interests in international collaboration, to allow you to assess the potential fit.

If all goes well, then in subsequent exchanges begin to explore potential areas for collaboration. However, do not plan anything in detail or commit to any collaboration at this stage as there is one more step: the visit.

The importance of the visit

The test of the suitability of a partnership should not be during the delivery phase. Therefore, visit your partner first. For a relatively small investment you will gain invaluable insight into their artistic work and methodology, and be in a stronger position to decide whether it is compatible with yours. During your visit create plenty of opportunities to talk formally and informally, see their work, meet staff, visit other cultural institutions, meet the British Council, and finally begin to plan any future collaboration.

When you meet, the first obstacle to overcome may be language. Google Translate can help with written communication but for speaking you’ll need an interpreter. If you are relying on an interpreter, insist they have knowledge or experience of the cultural sector as it’s not just a matter of translating words but artistic concepts. If you and your partner speak a shared language, avoid jargon and idiomatic expressions, and keep it simple to avoid misinterpretations.

Common challenges

Cultural differences make this work interesting but can lead to problems. Ask your partner about customs or taboos that might influence the project and share yours. There may also be cultural differences in how both organisations work artistically and administratively. Be open-minded, try not to make judgements based on your cultural reference points, but learn and consider theirs. However, if something affects your ability to work effectively then discuss it.

Balancing your work and resources in the UK with your international work is complex. However, it is important for partners to consider how the international collaboration and local work can benefit from, and include, each other. In my view, a collaboration that infuses both elements will reap benefits at the local and international level.

Funding is inevitably challenging. In my experience focussing your energy and efforts on finding and establishing the right partnership opens more avenues for funding opportunities than if funding is your main driver.

Getting support

Knowing what support you need is half the solution, while the other half is knowing what’s available. Here are some tips:

  • Ask your social and professional networks for contacts and advice.
  • Contact the country’s embassy once you have an international partner. It may be able to help with funding or provide useful business contacts.
  • Approach the British Council from the start. If it has an arts manager in its office abroad they will be invaluable to you.
  • Consider working with an external cultural professional to help you navigate the local cultural landscape.
  • Get colleagues on board and keep them informed so they can step in when needed.

Emma Crook is an international cultural consultant based in Chile.

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