What Artists Need From Corporations Trying To Support Black Lives Matter Movements
Photo: Armando Diaz/POCStock

What Artists Need From Corporations Trying To Support Black Lives Matter Movements

Authentic collaboration is more relevant today than ever before

It’s already August, and I’m not sure anyone can truly articulate what this year has become. The collective experience of flattening the curve of the pandemic has turned into a collective movement of fighting against broken systems that have long protected and perpetuated the injustices against Black people, people of color, and the economically challenged around the globe. Even in social isolation, an important conversation for change continues to build momentum, and denial about anti-Black racism is no longer an option.


As an artist, I have received a fair amount of requests to use my work in “support of this moment.” I publicly shared one such instance in which I, along with a few artists, received a request to create a mural for Microsoft’s 5th Avenue store on short notice — “while the protests are still relevant.” It led to a deeper conversation about the exploitation of Black artists and the performative allyship of corporations when they try to address and participate in activism and moments of cultural awakening.

What is the importance of art during these times, especially for Black artists who have yet to truly be recognized, supported, and protected by those who now seek our contributions and suddenly want to hear our voices?

I’ve wondered how we can ensure that the momentum of 2020 won’t lose steam. It should mean more than the latest swing of a pendulum that will inevitably swing back — even if it’s one that’s been heightened by the current political climate, a virus, lack of human contact, and too much TV.

What is the importance of art during these times, especially for Black artists who have yet to truly be recognized, supported, and protected by those who now seek our contributions and suddenly want to hear our voices?

The pessimistic part of my personality — I’m British, after all — doesn’t want to believe that lasting change is possible. But the part of me that is hopeful, creative, imaginative, and stubborn has begun to focus on what I can do to have a real impact and commit to seeing real change.

What I feel most compelled to do is strengthen my commitment to fight for artists’ rights and share why it’s more important than ever to truly value, protect, and collaborate with artists.

I’ve spent the last 10 years regularly working with brands like Tiffany & Co., MaxMara, Nike, and Puma, and institutions like the New York City Ballet, the Trust for Governors Island, and amfAR. I know I can speak honestly to the artist’s experience. Instead of highlighting negative experiences, I feel obligated to share what I have learned to be necessary for well-balanced, healthy, and fruitful collaborations.

Obviously, I cannot speak for all artists. Some may absolutely disagree with me or might have more to add, and that’s great. The more perspectives, the better.

From the beginning, there should be a commitment to understanding

A corporation should genuinely take the time to learn about the artist, their art, and specific needs and goals. How can the company invest in the artist’s future? Foster collaboration, and remove the element of exploitation by replacing it with INVESTMENT.

Exploitation often happens with “work for hire” contracts, and when artists aren’t paid their worth. You see this a lot with companies asking for work in exchange for “exposure” or paying artists of color much less than their White counterparts. Net 60 and Net 90 payment schedules should be fully retired — as should contractual terms such as indemnity, force majeure, and perpetuity. The last one always gets me because a company might have the best interest of the artist at heart, but can’t guarantee that the same value and respect for the artist and their work will be upheld if terms change. Empowering artists with agreements and contracts that reflect respect and long-term commitment should be a priority for all parties involved. This responsibility lies with the companies and institutions, who should consistently learn from artists how to improve their practices, and who should in turn teach artists a different art: negotiation.

Cultivate real relationships with artists that can lead to something impactful on every level. That can improve future relationships with other artists that you want to work with. Often, artists are the last creatives incorporated into the process of commercial work. Why not bring us in at the beginning to aid in the process? For those of you who think this is impossible, it’s not. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience and cultivate strong collaborative relationships with such brands as Samsung, Tiffany & Co., the 92Y, The New York City Ballet, and Google Creative Lab, to name just a few.

When in doubt, listen. Ask questions.

Who is the work for? Companies should engage in conversations with the communities where the work will be of impact. Engage in discussions with the artists’ goals. Facilitate creating a bridge between the artist and the community. Be open to changing course. Be open to discomfort and being wrong. Be open to it taking time to grow. Be open to new perspectives. Create a foundation for collaboration that is built on accountability and transparency on all levels. For example, when I created the mural Dance Everyday in Buffalo, N.Y., I worked with the Albright Knox Public Art team, University of Buffalo students, and East Side community representatives to identify the final location for the permanent 200-foot mural. I even spoke with many of the locals to make sure that they knew me personally. I wasn’t just some outside artist coming in with my own perspective; their ideas, hopes, and the history of the neighborhood became a fundamental part of the final piece.

Creatives are creative. Don’t build walls around us. It’s really that simple.

Successful collaboration creates a deeper level of understanding and appreciation for individual creativity. It leads to a greater understanding and connection, and it can lead to everyone feeling valued and respected, seen and heard as individuals — but also stronger in solidarity.

What better time to strive toward creating positive and lasting change that is fair and just — together?