Seeding Collaborations: An Interview with Guilded
Our new series of longer interviews “Seeding Collaborations” discusses some of the changes that the art world is undergoing and how we can move forward in a more just path. To kick it off, we interviewed Hope Mohr and Daniel Park from Guilded, a cooperative of freelance artists incubated by the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC).
Hope Mohr (she/her) is the General Manager of Guilded and is based in Ohlone territory in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to being a former professional dancer and choreographer, she is a co-director, alongside Cherie Hill and Karla Quintero, of Bridge Live Arts—an equity-driven live arts presenting nonprofit organization based in the Bay Area. As an attorney, Mohr specializes in distributed leadership models and democratizing nonprofit organizations. She currently serves as a fellow with the Sustainable Economies Law Center.
Daniel Park (he/him), based in Philadelphia, is the Outreach Coordinator at Guilded and has been working at USFWC for just over three and a half years. He is a theater and performance artist who focuses on racial, economic, labor justice. He is one of the founders of Obvious Agency, a worker-owned cooperative, where he works with Joseph Ahmed, Arianna Gass, and Cat Ramirez in interactive theater and live performance. Their work came together through a shared interest in how games and theater can engage the audience with participation at the forefront to consider principles, theories, and practices of participatory democracy.
The full Guilded team includes Lori Herrera, Outreach Manager; Esteban Kelly, Executive Director; Okechukwu (OK) Ukah, Manager of Member Services; and Chip Sinton, Product Operations Manager.
Sophia Park (SP): Let’s chat about the 2022 Workers Cooperative Conference. What are your thoughts and reflections from the conference?
Hope Mohr (HM): The conference underscored that there's really a groundswell of energy in the arts around implementing collective and cooperative models. These ideas aren't new, but I think because the pandemic exposed the precarity of artists as workers, there's a renewed sense of the importance of considering new economic approaches in the arts. But the speed of institutional change, as always, lags behind what's happening on the ground. So the conference also underscored the need to continue pushing for institutional change. We have more allies inside of institutions than we have had in the past, but there's a lot of burnout among folks pushing on the inside for institutional change. The conference underscored the need to continue pushing institutions to fund the arts by thinking about artists as workers.
Daniel Park (DP): I think from the little bit that I have heard from folks has been interesting as well. One is just adding on to what Hope was saying: recognize artists as owners of their labor. Not just respecting them as workers, but being able to build power of their own through ownership of their work and the things that they're creating.
Another thought has to do with the ways that our arts economy has been set up to continue to pit people against one another as opposed to making it easy to find solidarity. Some of what I was hearing was the usual and understandable frustration around funders versus artists versus service organizations. Artists feel like funders are difficult to work with. They actually need to continue to separate out the individuals who are working at funding organizations who do have a meaningful amount of power and resources as individuals who are part of the ecosystem. The whole funder group was made up of people of color, primarily women of color. And that's pretty wild and pretty awesome. And it's unfair to treat that group of people the same way that we would treat a previous generation of program officers who weren't necessarily on the side of artists and trying to connect with communities. So a big question for me is: how do we continue to build a sense of solidarity for the people across the ecosystem? I think many of us are working towards the same thing and we all have different roles that we play within that.
HM: Many funders are transitioning their portfolios to prioritize BIPOC-led organizations. As that happens, it’s crucial to do healing in our own communities so that we can move forward together with a sense of mutual support. Through solidarity, we can continue to offer an alternative to the logic of scarcity.
SP: As someone who was part of the funder group – in an awkward position, perhaps, because of the role of fiscal sponsorship – I really appreciated the conversations around how we build solidarity as people and workers. How do we take care of each other, how do we enact change, how do we think about system change, but also the small things that we can do day to day? Being able to have all those conversations almost at once because each of the parties present, even if not everyone, gave a more holistic vision of what is possible and what we should work towards.
As artists and as workers, what was your introduction to the solidarity economy?
HM: Through my involvement in racial equity work in the Bay Area, I have heard a lot of calls from artists of color for the need for white folks to move back in the field. That catalyzed a transition in the nonprofit organization that I founded to move from a hierarchical model to a model of distributed leadership. So for me, distributed leadership work has been a gateway to cooperatives. Thinking outside 501(c)(3) defaults has led me to think about new models that aren't nonprofits. Also, becoming a Fellow with the Sustainable Economies Law Center, where I am surrounded by co-op lawyers, took me right into solidarity economy work.
DP: My immediate question was like, well, what do you mean by [solidarity economy]? Because it could mean so many different things. I would say that for me, it became really prevalent once I got to Philly and started working here. Philadelphia’s arts ecosystem is ridiculously underfunded for its size. During the pandemic, our entire arts and culture budget was completely cut. And it wasn't until a bunch of arts folks started organizing that we were able to maintain something from the city. It’s an interesting paradox that you deserve to get paid for your labor and you should be paying the people that you're working with, but not actually having access to resources to do so.
What came out of that was just these really lovely, you would call it mutual aid now, but to call it that then, like there were theater companies here like Applied Mechanics who were just making sure that they were feeding people at every rehearsal. It was like, we can't pay you as well as we should for this time. But what we can do is make sure that you're not having to spend the time, energy and money to figure out how to eat afterwards. We're going to make sure that there are snacks, we're going to make sure that you love being here and that this is a space where you are welcome and in all ways as a human being kind of thing. I think that this is, in an unofficial way, practicing the solidarity economy.
And then coming to USFWC, I learned about worker cooperatives. Before, when I heard the term cooperative, I thought it was like a gentrifying grocery store. I then realized that I know so many different ensembles, particularly theater artists who are working non-hierarchically or democratically who are doing this device process where it's really about the ensemble creating a thing together.
It's also been really interesting to me to see, as in my organizing work and in USFWC work, how I have started to introduce concepts around what it is when we talk about ownership and running a business. When we have to move money and resources around in order to make our art, we are participating in the economy no matter what. I see how some artists really shy away from that conversation because they haven't had an opportunity to really build a strong political analysis about what capitalism actually is and how capitalism is different from just running a business. Why is it important to be transparent about budgets? Learning that it's okay to talk about money and that we actually should talk about money, that it’s empowering to talk about money. A lot of this came through my work with USFWC.
SP: The next question builds off of what you've been saying and something that I heard at the conference. Why aren't there more kinds of officially formed artist cooperatives? We’re fed this narrative in the arts of you – you're the one person, you're the artist. You have an idea, you create and then you sell it and then you become successful – especially within the Western context. How do we expand from the individual perspective (because the reality is that one individual is supported by many others)? What does working cooperatively offer for artists to dismantle this narrative we’ve been told for so long?
DP: A big part of it is just empowerment. Learning about all of these systems that we are participating in, that we are surrounded by, and we are impacted by. Understandably, a lot of artists don't want to engage because they just want to make their art. And that's such an understandable thing to be – I just want to do the thing that I love. My loved ones, my colleagues, the collaborators have to really wrestle with that question: am I willing to put in all the work of producing or running a business in order to just do the things that I love and want to do. It’s such a difficult conundrum.
By learning about these systems, practicing cooperation, practicing participatory democracy, we have an opportunity to continue wrestling with those questions and feeling empowered to answer them. We feel empowered to draw boundaries and to own that as a choice as opposed to something that we are simply forced into. I think that's a big, big part of it. And what I want to see is that it's about building power for artists as a working class—a major sector of people—and empowering artists to help build the world that they want to participate in. Not just through the art that they are making and how they are making that art, but also in all of the other ways that they're showing up. I love getting to teach artists about these things because I love seeing artists applying the creativity with which they make their art towards answering these same questions: how do we live as a society, how do we function as individuals within that? What are the alternatives? I just think that is one of the greatest powers that artists have to contribute to a movement more broadly. Seeing artists take on that power in their individual lives and then feeling like they can then contribute that back to their communities and loved ones. I'm like, that's it. That's how we get free, ultimately.
HM: I keep thinking about this. A well-respected downtown New York choreographer once said to me “Too much democracy is bad for art.” In the arts, we’re still battling the assumption that collaboration is antithetical to rigor or excellence or even individual voice. It’s important not to draw a line at the studio door between activism and creative practice and instead to see those as mutually supportive creative practices. Collectives and cooperatives offer us ways to think about emergent form as opposed to form that's given and regurgitated.
SP: Something that I heard a lot was how artists are already working collectively, but they can't necessarily name it as a cooperative. How do you think Guilded or others already think deeply about cooperatives that could help others? Instead of thinking that they’re always on their own, to instead think of their work as linked. How can we facilitate that paradigm shift?
HM: Guilded is offering not just transactional services but also political education for artists. Guilded staff are entirely artists and activists. We're figuring out how to integrate the work of politicizing artists into the concrete services that we're offering.
DP: I would also say that we are killing it on the recruitment level. I am regularly talking to artists about the work that we're doing and trying to convince them why they should give it a try. We have two very different recruiting strategies in California and Philadelphia.The folks that I'm talking to in Philadelphia are generally people who are pretty well established in their careers or at the very least to the point where they know how to run their business. So a lot of the benefits that Guilded is trying to offer, they have already figured out systems for. And it's interesting to figure out, what is the pitch? Sometimes it's, well, wouldn't it be nice if you didn't have to do this? Wouldn't it be nice to delegate that work to somebody else? Wouldn't it be nice if you had an expert that could just double check your work or something like that? But there are folks who say I have a system and actually I really trust that system.
What about all the people who don't have access to that [system], who haven't had an opportunity to learn those things, who haven't yet been forced out to learn those things? Those who haven't had to make that decision between like, do I want to make art? Is this all I want to do, but I have to do this, right? The right part of the talk is by pooling our resources together, even if you don't do this anymore, even if it's not necessarily something that is going to make a huge impact in your life or career necessarily. One, let's try to imagine, what could it actually look like? But then to begin by using this or automatically helping somebody else because the money that you are bringing into the cooperative through the service charge that's associated with using Guilded, that's not just helping you. That's helping everybody else.
Also talking to people about the concept of ownership and what that actually means in the long term, both in terms of being in charge, like being able to have a say in governance, and in terms of building wealth over time. Acknowledging that we all have complicated feelings about ownership, but let's not lie and say that it's not helpful if you've got a patronage account that can contribute to a mortgage later on in your life and make that accessible to you, especially for people who have been kept out of those systems, who have been economically oppressed. So building that wealth over time is much harder for that, right? It is a way for them to increase the economic power of themselves in their community through ownership and that sort of thing. Talking to people about these concepts and sharing it with them and being clear and upfront that this is a project of racial and economic justice is a major part of what sets us apart from other people doing similar work and that kind of thing. So I think that even in just talking about Guilded, there's this political education that's happening that doesn't always have to be in a workshop.
SP: In some of your other writing, I saw that wellbeing and care is frequently part of the conversation within worker cooperatives. Everything that you've said so far, I could see where the care enters into the picture. Could you talk a little bit more about this relationship between care and cooperatives, whether it's in the work that you personally do as you're thinking about these systems, or if it's something that you can say like, oh, this is how care actually is enacted or how care is involved within the cooperative model.
DP: I can give an example if that's useful. When Obvious Agency was first really starting out having this fee for service arm, one of the first gigs that we got was for a university and it was super underpaid at $1,500 total, but it was also our first potential gig. So we agreed to do it because we needed to build that resume.
It was this interesting moment where I was freelancing full time for the first time ever. And that was nice, but financially it wasn’t working out for me and I was always stressed. Joseph and Arianna at the time both had full time jobs, or the equivalent of, and they knew where their income was coming from. So on that project, we started this practice that we've always held going forward, which is actually talking about where we're at in our lives before we talk about who's going to get paid what. They both said they don't need this money right now – “it would be nice, but we don't actually need it at the moment. How about we just put our chunk of this back into the co-op? And Daniel, how about you take your rent amount?” That was huge for me. I had never felt cared for like that before or seen by my colleagues and the amount of vulnerability that it takes to be able to share where I'm at financially. The amount of trust it takes to be able to say, I don't need this right now, actually, especially as artists, when we're always so under-resourced, trying to figure that out. It was really a “wow” moment for me. And I realized that this is the model I want. This is what solidarity looks like in practice. And I want to help more people be able to experience that, not necessarily in that same way. But in their own ways, in their own situations, to move from it like an individual, sort of like a mind frame where I need to take care of myself. How do we take care of ourselves and help more people make that switch over?
HM: Thanks for that. That's a beautiful example. It also reminds me of a conversation happening about needs-based salary calculators, which is a new approach to equitable pay. It similarly asks an organization to listen to what people need as opposed to what people deserve.
SP: Throughout, we've been talking about this and from your WCC panel last year, Daniel, you brought forth the question “Can art be liberatory when made in oppressive systems?” That is my question. If yes, how do we move forward?
HM: My first answer is yes. When we engage with old forms, we change them and are changed by them. Even though we might be working inside of oppressive systems, those systems aren't static and neither are we. Being in a conversation with the systems that we're working inside is important.
DP: Yes, but there's a huge asterisk next to it. Yes, but I don't think it happens by accident very often. It can, but I think it really requires a lot of deep, intentional thought and change.
These encompassing systems of capitalism and white supremacy and patriarchy – we are surrounded by them, swimming in them, but we're not fully trapped by them. We can fight. We can try to do something different. We can explore. There are so many experiments happening right now. To try something different, to prove to people that we can get that much closer to success every single time, whatever that happens to be, and learn from it. We can find the boundaries of where it starts to collapse in on itself and get curious about what happens when that happens. I have this strong belief right now in the need to try. I feel really similar about creating art in that way. We can do something different while still operating. We can liberate ourselves in certain ways while operating under these systems, but only if we try something different with it.
HM: I want to add to that it’s not enough to make art that's about liberation. The art making process itself has to be liberatory for the people making it. It’s as much about how the work gets made as it is what is finally seen.
SP: Is there anything coming up for Guilded that you would like for us to share?
HM: I would love to extend an invitation to freelance artists to reach out to us and learn more. We are ready and excited to partner with artists. And we have a lot of different services to offer, including a pathway to worker ownership.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. To find out more information on Guilded, head over to their website.
About Sophia Park
Sophia Park (she/her) is a writer, curator, and arts administrator whose interests lie in how intimacy, communal care practices, and support systems influence curatorial and art practice. She is based between Brooklyn, NY and Gumi, South Korea. She received her B.A. in Neuroscience from Oberlin College and M.A. in Curatorial Practice from the School of Visual Arts. She currently works as the Director of External Relations at Fractured Atlas and teaches entrepreneurship and the arts at New York University. She is part of slow cook, a curatorial collaboration, and is a co-founder of Jip Gallery. You can also find her running some silly distance, trying to get back into tennis, or dancing somewhere.