By Nina Berman on March 10th, 2020
How to Staff an Artistic Project: Building the Right Team
It takes more than a lone creative genius, working feverishly in seclusion, to bring a project to life. More often than not, you'll need a team to realize your creative vision. But it can be hard to know where to start getting the help you need.
That’s why we’re sharing a roadmap for you to think about what kind of help you need to bring your project to life and how to find that help.
As artists and arts professionals, the Fractured Atlas team has found itself on all sides - staffing our own projects, getting hired on to help other artists realize their visions, and working with artists in our community who are building their own teams.
We’ll share what we’ve seen work, what never works, and our recommendations for building successful creative teams.
Why You Might Need a Team
There are plenty of reasons that you might need to build out a team to help you bring your project to life.
You might not have all of the skills required to complete the project that you have in mind. For example, you might need to fabricate a custom structure, but don’t have the woodworking skills. You might need to create animations for a documentary, but have never used the necessary software before.
You might need help for time-based reasons. You can’t be everywhere at once, and will need to consider that as you think about what kind of help you’ll need. You probably can’t be your own ASL interpreter for your one-person show. Or videographer during your dance performance.
Creating a team creates more excitement and buy-in. By bringing in help and collaborators, you’ll have a larger network of people who are invested in the success of the project. This means that when it comes time to sell tickets for an event or crowdfund the project, you’ll be able to cast a wider net.
But the most important reason to build a team is to avoid burnout. No one person can do it all. Shouldering too much work and too many responsibilities will likely leave you depleted and frustrated, which will likely lead to a worse outcome or to you abandoning a project completely if the work ceases to bring you joy or meaning.
Different Kinds of Help: Collaborators and Contractors
Before you build out your team, you’ll need to figure out exactly what kind of help you are looking for. Once you know what you need, you’ll be better equipped to find the right people to help, and can better articulate what your expectations are.
There are two main kinds of help that you might be looking for to complete a project; collaborators or contractors. Collaborators will help shape your creative vision whereas contractors will help you bring your vision to life.
You might want a writing partner to challenge your assumptions and to write more believable characters, or you need an editor to make sure that you aren’t playing fast and loose with the commas. When you are asking for help, be clear about exactly what kind of help you need.
This will clarify whether a particular person is the best fit for your needs and if they have the capacity to provide you with that help. Being upfront about what amount of creative input you’re looking for will help set expectations for your working relationship. You may find that your plucky, upstart project needs a fully developed organization. Check out How We Work for support and resources, and to see how the Fractured Atlas team does it.
As important as it is to clarify your needs and expectations before you hire a staff member, it’s also important to remain flexible in case the situation changes. You might find that the person you hired for a particular niche technical skill wants to and can help you expand your creative vision.
Let yourself be open to making these relationships flexible so that they can best suit you, your team, and the final product.
Finding a Team for Your Creative Project
Once you know exactly what kind of help you need, the next step is to actually go out and find that help.
The best place to start building a team is within your own network. Think of who you know in your community that has the skills and vision that you are looking for. Put the call out in your community on social media, through email, and by asking around. The best way to find talented and trustworthy people is to go through people who you already know and trust.
Consider who your community knows—friends of friends. In fact, working with friends and colleagues of your network might be preferable to working with your friends. It can sometimes be easier to establish a working relationship with people who aren’t your absolute inner circle.
If you need to reach beyond your own network, search wider than Craigslist. Post a listing on relevant social media groups, email listservs, or other arts-centric job listing sites like NYFA, Art, Frankly, or Art Jobs.
There are often social media groups specifically for certain professions or technical skills - writers, video editors, sound engineers, and more. To find the right arts job listing sites in your city, type into a search bar “art jobs” and the name of your city. Then see which websites host those listings in your area.
Make sure that the people you are bringing on are not just able to complete the technical or creative requirements you are looking for. Make sure that they are people you can see yourself easily and happily working with. Creative projects can be stressful and intense, so you want to be sure that you’re hiring someone that is the right fit personality-wise.
As with any job, you’re not just hiring for the technical know-how, you’re hiring a person that you’ll be spending plenty of time with and entrusting with your vision.
Additionally, you don’t know what you don’t know and that’s okay! Sometimes an internet search in imperfect terms can lead you to the right resources or services. Searching “how can I make something out of metal” may lead you to local fabricators or guidelines for how to hire one. “Can I rent a throne?” may lead you to a props warehouse or resale space that has what you need. Throw your wildest idea at the internet and see who might be able to make it a reality—this will allow you to refine your needs and staff appropriately.
Compensating Your Team
Financially compensate your team whenever possible! Always try to pay people what they are worth for their skills and expertise. Creative work tends to be undervalued economically, and one of the ways that we demonstrate that we value it is by paying for it.
When you are hiring, be transparent about what your budget is for a specific job. Letting people know up-front how you can compensate for a job shows that you take their time and energy seriously, and that you don’t want to string anyone along with an implication of more money than you can afford. And if someone you’d like to work with has a rate that’s higher than you can afford, rather than try to bargain them down, find someone who is within your budget.
Not all projects will be able to compensate their teams financially. And that’s ok! Most of us have worked on projects just because we believed in them or wanted to learn something new. As long as you are open about not being able to compensate financially, people will be able to make an informed decision about whether they want to join your team.
If you aren’t able to pay collaborators, think of other ways that you can compensate them and show them that you value their skills and their time.
Can you give them extra tickets to the final production? Can you give them a piece of what you are creating? Are there any other services or items that you can trade? Always offer to share production photos and videos, any program copies or media coverage so that your collaborators can keep them for their résumés and portfolios. If nothing else, cooking meals for your team is a time-honored tradition in the independent art world. Accept that people may not be able to work without financial compensation; respect that decision and take care of the relationship. There’s also another project and things may change.
Best Practices for Building Successful Creative Teams
At Fractured Atlas, we are all arts professionals and administrators. But most of us are also artists in our own rights. We are ceramicists, knitters, actors, directors, musicians, and more.
We have built our own creative teams and been a part of creative teams to realize someone else’s vision. All this to say, we’ve been there and we’ve seen some things.
Aisha Jordan, Program Associate at Fractured Atlas has had her hands in collaborative creative endeavors across disciplines. She founded a theater company, 2050 Legacy and co-hosts the 2Nerds and an Actor podcast. She is also the creator, executive producer, writer, and an occasional actor in a web series called “Hashtag The Show.” From her theater company to her web series, Aisha has learned how to avoid her own burnout and how to build a team to support her vision. Here are some of Aisha’s tips:
Get Help Before You Burn Out
“Don't do everything yourself. I know that's cliche and everyone's probably told you that, but really think about it! I think it started as burnout [for me]. I [was] doing all these things, and [I believed] you can and then realized [I] can't. In my web series, [there were] so many things that I knew I didn't know. I'm not a cinematographer, I'm not a director. I'm not those things. And even though I might not be an expert in film and TV, I know someone else knows that. Someone else has that expertise. It was very much knowing that the burnout is real and that I didn't want to do it again.”
Make Compensation a Priority
“I am very much about paying everyone. Even when I was [running] my theater company, I would use my own money and pay people something or at least feed them. I never wanted someone to do something for free because as an artist I had been doing so many things for free. The first time we did it, we paid them $10 so they could get a Metrocard. There's always some kind of exchange, and in the world of the arts people do understand equivalent exchange. You give something, get something. And the people who don't get it, they're not meant to work on your project.”
Learn the Job Titles to Describe the Help You Need
“I was putting together the budget [for my web series], how much we were going to pay the crew, what we needed on set and all of that stuff and then on set I was also doing all these things. When you look at how crew and pre-production works you realized I was doing the work of a line producer and a production manager. Those are the two things that we actually need. I as the executive producer, writer, creator, and acting in some of it, can't also do those things. So, even just asking who else does that, so we can hire that person. And then look in the budget to see how much we can pay that person.”
Think Twice Before Hiring Your Friends
“Sometimes your friends are not capable of doing that thing [you need help with]. Ask your friend who is a professional in it if they'll do it - don't just take anyone. In the end, it’s a bunch of help you can’t use. Sometimes it goes terribly wrong because they just aren't good, and then you get into this awkward situation where you have to fire your friend. Don't put yourself in that position, it sucks.”
Learn to Let Go
“Learn about relinquishing things properly. It's really easy to hold on to stuff and say ‘let me do this or let me control this.’ Learn to relinquish things”
Nicola Carpenter has worked as a bike touring puppeteer, educator, fabricator, actor, and organizer. And as the Associate Director of People Operations at Fractured Atlas, she brings a professional perspective as well as her own personal experiences to the question of how to create a successful staff for a project.
Define Your Needs
“A lot of artists don't know what they want in staffing. They want people to help them and sometimes even to pay them to do that, but they often don’t know what they want that help to do. Many artists that I've worked for didn't think to make a job description or set any sort of expectations. The times when this was actually successful were the times when I was fabricating. In those cases it was really clear cut. They'd say, 'We want you to sew this before this date. Here are the materials, this is how much we'll pay you.' That was very clear but there were a lot of times where that was not the case and I would have liked everyone to think about what they needed before bringing me into a project.”
Hire Like You’d Hire For a Job
“We talk about culture fit when looking at jobs, but also what are you missing? What in your current group are you missing and how can you bring someone on that brings that? People don't necessarily put that much effort in when finding people for smaller arts projects or for volunteering, but I'd argue that it's just as important for artists to think about this as it is for larger organizations.”
Manage Your Team
"Volunteers work so much better if they're being managed. I was a volunteer for this arts conference and they didn't really have any volunteer management. We were supposed to lift up time cards for speakers, but they didn't pre-decide who was in what room for which sessions! In one of the sessions there were two of us that were both doing time in the same room which was both confusing for the two of us and the speaker. If they had given someone the job of managing volunteers it would have been so much better. When I've volunteered and there has been volunteer management and more formal volunteer onboarding, it's been so much easier to actually assist in an efficient way.”
It’s Still Work
“When people think about HR or People Operations, they're most often thinking about arts organizations or more established companies, instead of for their arts projects. People aren't drawing that connection that temporary or contract work is still work. A lot of the things that we've been writing about and thinking about on Work. Shouldn’t. Suck. apply.”
Ready To Staff Your Project? First, You Need a Budget
Once you start thinking about your work in the context of the team who will bring it to life, you’ll start to incorporate collaboration into the way that you’re planning projects from the get-go.
Now you know that in all likelihood, you’ll need a team to bring your creative vision to life and to avoid burnout. First, you need to articulate exactly the kind of help that you need, then figure out where to find that help. Finally, you’ll need to figure out how that team fits into your overall financial picture. Learn how to create a budget for a project, including everything from the equipment you’ll need to the staff that you’ll be hiring.
At Fractured Atlas, we provide tools and tips to streamline the business and administrative parts of being an artist, so that you can spend more time creating and collaborating.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.