“Who Gets Creative Control?”: The Conversation All Creatives Need To Have, But Aren’t

by Daric Gill

Artists & designers range widely in their willingness to share creative control. Some people thrive by sharing the idea-making process & using parameters as guides, while others are at their best when given the freedom to explore their own ideas. If you work with creatives & you wish to better understand your colleagues, or you’re an artist trying to figure out how to develop your professional ambitions, knowing who wants or needs creative control is key. Yet this topic is often avoided, incorrectly inferred, or completely overlooked altogether. This article is part of a mini-series, in which I suggest a few ways to get the greatest result for creatives & art supporters. Read on for more.

Meeting At A Better Conversation
After spending the last year communicating with arts organizations & city/state officials regarding the challenges the arts face in the upcoming years, I’ve noticed a peculiar hiccup in the conversation — The titles we give creatives help define what they do, but get in the way of explaining how they do them. More importantly, it doesn’t address how they imagine or conceive during the initial idea phase. This process, called ideation, most likely defines their business model & therefore their future career goals. It’s healthy to ask or learn how an artist works during their idea-making phase so that there isn’t a misstep along the way.

An artist might paint or sculpt, but are they for hire to make the likeness of your pet? A photographer might document culturally significant events, but do they also do weddings? An illustrator has a line of custom t-shirts, but will they collaborate on something for your fashion company? With so many avenues that could result in a misunderstanding, I found that it all comes down to one question: “Yes or no. Is this person the type that wishes to share creative control?”

“Yes or no. Is this person the type that wishes to share creative control?”

Defining The Creative Class
First, let’s get something out of the way that often puts up emotional barricades. Instead of using super-specific labels like ‘fine artist’, ‘commercial designer’, ‘choreographer’, etc. that often are full of baggage, let’s zoom out a little & discuss what we are as a whole — The Creative Class.

While there are plenty of peripheral careers included, it’s widely accepted that the Creative Class consists of professionals who contribute to or make their living in the arts, i.e. design, fine art, writing, dance, education, music & entertainment, new technology &/or creative content.

All of these specific arts-related careers can fit nicely into 2 slices of the Creative Class pie: those who thrive through the exploration of their own ideas (self-propelled creative control) & those who engage in collaborative idea-making (shared creative control). With the vast majority of the arts fitting into the latter category, it’s no wonder why the public & even arts administrations approach things uniformly. However, this can lead to huge divides in the approach, funding, & cultural importance of the smaller sector. So what are the differences?

Shared Creative Control (AKA Arts As A Service)
In the largest category, you’ll find creative careers that are commercial, highly customizable, commissionable, & embrace co-authorship. Collaboration is built into the conceptualizing & production processes. Here is where you’ll find the arts as a service, meaning their professional skillsets are hired out as part of the transaction. Their personal visions are blended with the parameters of a greater goal & they use their creative skills/experience to achieve that more global goal.

Self-Propelled Creative Control
In this much smaller category, you’ll find people who have a particular fondness for the idea-making process & create their best work using their own vision. These creatives are highly culturally-driven, take pride in personal authorship, & use their work as a way to intimately connect to the concept.

Although this slice is considerably smaller, it is responsible for reflecting the soul & uniqueness of a given culture. When you consider famous authors, the fine arts, musicians & composers, poets, & revolutionary members of society, you’re likely picking from this group of people. In many countries, this sector is valued as a nationally significant force that should be protected & encouraged. In addition to directly & indirectly building the economy, their biggest achievements come as advances in the quality of life. As this is a far harder metric to quantify, this slice is commonly underserved. In a bizarre paradox, the contributions that this slice provides are among the most sought out reasons for traveling to new destinations.

Re-evaluating Collaboration
With the recent increase of interest in the vitality of collaboration, there comes another potential for misunderstanding. In many cases, a group of creatives works together on a specific design or project. Again, this type of collaboration is a form of shared creative control & is mostly employed by those who champion that mindset. However, this isn’t the only type of collaboration that can be utilized.

Artists & art collectives often pool their resources to create exhibitions or opportunities that might not have been available before. Additionally, some collaborate by passing down their processes to other people. Workshops, advocacy, educational resources, partnership building, sharing the achievements of others, & mentorships are also forms of collaborative efforts. Assuming that all artists hire out their idea-making processes may undercut values that some individuals feel are sacred & could actually miss an opportunity to collaborate in a more appropriate style.

The Flexibility of Multi-platformed &/Or Emerging Creatives
We’ve talked about 2 oppositional mindsets. It’s an excellent time to remember that these are potentials that can be toggled between during moments of flexibility. It’s not uncommon to see professionals in the creative class take on a multi-platformed approach to making a living in the arts. Especially during economically slow times. It is also a particularly handy tool for emerging artists who are experimenting to find their authentic voice. So how do you know when to ask for commissioned partnerships?

Say an individual has an online marketplace where they sell hand-made crafts that could be considered a commercially-driven endeavor. It’s safe to say that they probably are at least approachable with a customizable request. However, if that same artist has another body of work that deals with something cultural, philosophical, or told through personal narrative, it would be a good time to pause & evaluate your role in this situation.

In that case, your role may not be a shareholder in the idea-making process, but rather as an excited patron who appreciates what that individual is communicating to you. There’s an interesting distinction here: one is investing in what skills & experiences that creative can provide as a service in the future, while the other is investing in what concepts & narratives that creative has already developed.

 …one is investing in what skills & experiences that creative can provide as a service in the future, while the other is investing in what concepts & narratives that creative has already developed.

Discussing The Best Path
It’s worth knowing that asking either slice of the Creative Class to take on the persona of the other part, while doable, is sometimes uncomfortable & doesn’t always yield the best results. I’ve seen exceptional creatives who typically thrive in a collaborative setting, struggle when the starting parameters are too vague or open. Similarly, an accomplished self-driven idea-maker can freeze up when outside rules are placed on their personal conceptual process.

Both sides can certainly do the tasks asked of them, but it’s not always their best work. It’s just not their most ideal process. So, if you’re a professional who is looking to get the best out of a creative partnership or you’re a developing artist who is looking to choose which branch of the arts to go into, it is worth the effort to openly discuss & understand the balance of “Who Gets The Creative Control?”

You can find more free articles like this on my Artist Resource page. My mission is to provide free and accessible tools for artists, educators, and enthusiasts. I encourage you to share and refer people here as often as you wish. Naturally, these articles take many hours to thoroughly research and write. If you’d like to support me as an artist and advocate, please consider donating whatever you can. Thank you!

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