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Image courtesy of Pasadena Now

Cultivating a Culture of Collaboration

March 1, 2016

by Emily Hopkins


Side Street Projects is a mobile, artist-run organization that supports artists and projects that foster leadership through socially-engaged art. The artists at Side Street Projects are social entrepreneurs who work with communities to solve real world problems. We share what we have learned (our model) to strengthen the field of artists who work with communities, schools, and organizations.


In thinking about Side Street Projects through the lens of Radical Actions: From Teaching Artists to Social Practice, I keep returning to our collaborative culture. I would like to think that there is value in how the artists at Side Street Projects work together. These collaborations happen in the overlapping rings that emanate from the center of the organization and its history. Karen Atkinson and Joe Luttrell founded the organization in 1992 and I am the fourth Executive Director. When I reflect on my thirteen-year history with the organization, I realize that I cannot claim or own a single idea that has come out of the organization. That being said, I feel like my work at Side Street Projects is an important element of my artistic practice.


Most of the artists who run Side Street Projects also consider their work here as a part of their practice. In many ways, Side Street Projects is an artist “collective” or “collaborative.” When I look at the elements that make Side Street Projects innovative or unique, such as the woodworking bus and our mobile solar powered headquarters, none of the ideas can be contributed to any single author. Part of this has to do with how we approach artists who come to us. When interviewing artists, I ask them what their vision is, what they think they can do with us that will help move their work forward, what skills do they have to offer, and what skills do they need. Even high school interns bring something new to the table. All of our work comes through the filter of our mission and we are all artists supporting each other’s creative endeavors horizontally. The legacy of Side Street Projects is a rich history of artists who have come through our institution and added to the fiber of our structure. The fact that we inherited this legacy allows us to more easily surrender ownership over the ideas that we contribute to the institution.


Our teaching artists, for example, not only deliver pre-written curriculum; they are also asked to develop their unique teaching styles and to support one another. New strategies feed back into the curriculum. A standing agenda item at our teachers’ meetings is to share new methodologies that have been developed based on the evolving student body in our classes. Teaching artists often call out methods they have adopted based on observing one of their co-workers rather than speaking about their own ideas. When this happens, not only are the artists encouraging each other, they are also acknowledging their own vulnerabilities.


We have worked very hard to develop a foundation of trust among our community of artists. I have learned that trust is essential in this process. As a (rather utopian-minded) leader of this organization, I have worked very hard on investing in the leadership of the artists who run Side Street Projects. When I invest in them, they invest in each other, and that support comes back to the organization in layers. That spirit is an essential part of the culture of the organization, both internally and externally. At Side Street Projects, artists come to the table with a goal greater than themselves. In the same way, our organization comes to our community with greater goals in mind, even if they may not reflect the immediate needs of the organization.


I am kind of obsessed with pedagogical methodologies that break down hierarchies including the theories of Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed[1], and Jacques Ranciere’s Ignorant Schoolmaster[2], as well as folks like Grant Kester[3], who use the lens of dialogue and horizontality. It would be problematic if I tried to mentor an entire generation of emerging artists top down. I would burn myself out and let them down by spreading myself too thin. I also do not know everything. I honestly think one of my biggest talents is asking for advice.


In our ethos, our artists take on aspects of mentoring each other based on each of our unique skill sets. I am constantly encountering ripples of collaboration that spill out from the core artists who run Side Street Projects. I am fascinated with how organically our community supports each other. I am working to understand how our culture functions so that it can inform other artist communities. We are now working on formalizing some of the skill sharing to encourage more learning and to grow our institutional knowledge as a whole, which will reflect back out into our community.


We are often referred to as a connective tissue in the community. Each artist in our community is a connector. Our collective creativity is equal to more than the sum of our parts. As utopian as this might seem, I would like to think that if more community-based artists practiced this philosophy, we would be able to collectively perpetuate creative problem solving and accelerate progress towards social justice.


Emily Hopkins is an artist, curator, and Executive Director of Side Street Projects. Emily works to develop sustainable, community-based systems that connect artists directly to communities. She is an education reform advocate committed to hands-on art programs that appeal to multiple intelligences. Emily serves as a volunteer and advisor for her local school district and neighborhood association. She has a BFA & MA from California Institute of the Arts.  



[1]  Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (New York: Continuum, 2000)


[2] Rancière, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster / Jacques Rancière ; Translated, with an

Introduction by Kristin Ross.  (Stanford University Press, 1991)


[3]  G Kester, Grant. "Conversation Pieces: The Role of Dialogue in Socially-Engaged Art." 2005.




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