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How do you break up with a collaborator? Asking for a friend.
Simple in theory, painful in practice—but the way to break up a collaborative partnership is the same as for a romantic one: with as much honesty and compassion as you can muster. If you’re splitting up to pursue solo projects, then you have to say so; if you’ve found a new collaborator, you’ll have to announce it; if there are irreconcilable differences around ideas, money, or division of labor, then you have to discuss them.
Anyone with a conscience knows that you have to do this face to face. If you’ve shared the profound process of making art together, then you must honor your former collaboration by also experiencing the awkward, sad space of separation. And even if the conversation ends badly, at least you’ll walk away with integrity.
Find neutral territory for your chat—refrain from polluting the studio environment with bad feelings. Explain your reasons calmly and without rancor. Even if you’re truly incompatible at this point, avoid hyperbolic assertions or blaming the other person for the split. Own your feelings by using “I” statements rather than “you” statements (for example, “I’d like to work solo for a while and pursue my ideas” instead of “You always insist on doing it your way.”) If you don’t have a lot of practice with these behaviors, try writing your thoughts out before meeting. And listen to the response with empathy.
Breaking up, as the song goes, is really hard to do. If you’re keyed up and feeling defensive, it may be tempting to enumerate your (former) partner’s faults—but don’t, even if her behavior turns hostile. Instead, focus on the positive: how you’ve developed your ideas and work, the strategic and technical lessons you’ve learned, and the way that collaborating has expanded your thinking. Express your desire for your (ex) collaborator to do well, and talk about how you might support one another’s practice in new ways.
Depending on how emotionally difficult this meeting turns out to be, you may need to cool off and then meet again to discuss more practical matters. If you hold materials or tools in common, they will need to be divided. You’ll also have to think about the future life of your collaborative oeuvre. How will you proceed with the artworks you hold in common? Who will store them? Who will track inventory and sales? You will need to draw up a written, signed contract (you’ll find some food for thought here, and you might be able to use some of the contract language found here). Endeavor to be fair, lest you end up in court later like Marina Abramović and Ulay. Remember that a good contract protects both parties equally.
Many of the long-term artistic partners I know pivot between their solo and collaborative practices; if your relationship is not already damaged beyond repair, you might consider suggesting a hiatus instead of a permanent split. However, if you really can’t work together anymore, then your best bet is to be forthright, sympathetic, and equitable. Good luck!