Professional Development for Artists: Tools for Change

A few weeks ago, I organized and moderated a panel discussion on professional development for artists at the Grantmakers for the Arts Annual Conference in San Francisco. The panelists who joined me were: Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tuscon Arts Council; Cora Mirikitani, CEO of the Center for Cultural Innovation; and Nancy Trovillion, Deputy Director of the North Carolina Arts Council.

Drawing on years of experience delivering professional development programs designed to build artists’ professional practices, the panelists engaged in a lively discussion about what we have learned about artists’ needs, and what curricula and teaching methods have been most (and least) successful.

Some highlights: The panelists agreed that the skills and tools that artists need, and most request, are financial management skills, particularly creating and managing budgets for personal finances and art projects, and communications skills (verbal, written, negotiation, pitching, public speaking). These and other skills can be delivered in a variety of curriculum models. The group agreed that intensive weekend trainings can inspire and motivate. Programs that meet regularly on a topic over a period of months are very successful for their ability to keep that motivation going. Artists often have a great sense of generosity with one another, so peer learning models work well and build relationships and a sense of community.

The group discussed how, in these tough economic times, the funding community is striving to leverage limited resources to continue supporting artists. The biggest challenge that organizations face in providing professional development is financial sustainability. It is costly to develop quality content, train leaders and manage a robust roster of programs. These programs cannot be sustained through earned income because the costs are higher than most artists can afford to pay. Yet we know how transformative the skills learned in professional development workshops can be in helping artists achieve ambitious projects and build sustainable practices.

I saw this first-hand at the GIA conference in the work of two alumni of Creative Capital’s Professional Development Workshops.  Both presented in the pre-conference session “Individual Artists and Social Justice.” Artist Favianna Rodriguez, a PDP alum from Berkeley, presented her model for engaging artists in the struggle for social justice for migrant workers. Favianna organized a group of writers and visual artists to visit border and migrant worker communities in Arizona, where they gained deeper awareness of the situation and created work based on their experiences. Artist Teraneh Hemami, who attended a PDP workshop at Headlands Center for the Arts, also presented in the pre-conference session on an exhibition she organized, in the face of great personal peril, to introduce the work of notable contemporary Iranian artists to international audiences.
After the panels, I had a chance to talk to these inspiring artists and each of them told me that they could not have accomplished their projects without the goal-setting and communications skills they had learned in Creative Capital’s Professional Development Workshops.

Clearly, artists and the organizations that serve them face challenges, but the difference these workshops and programs make for artists who learn and use the skills offered can be life changing. When artists stabilize their own lives, they can go out into the world and be the agents of change.

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