Ten Years of Professional Development for Artists: What We’ve Learned

Alyson Pou leading the 2012 Artists Summer Institute

Alyson Pou leading the 2012 Artists Summer Institute

This year, we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of Creative Capital’s Professional Development Program (PDP), which has brought skills-building workshops and webinars to more than 6,500 artists in 180 communities nationwide. I sat down with our President & Executive Director, Ruby Lerner, to reflect back on the origins of PDP and what we’ve learned over the last decade about the needs of artists.

Ruby Lerner: I am so excited to get to talk about PDP’s history and evolution with you!
Alyson Pou: Yes! I have been looking forward to our conversation and thinking back on the activities that led up to the ground swell of interest in professional development for artists in the early 2000s, when we began our program. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, we saw a growing number of new artist-driven nonprofit organizations. Artists and nonprofits were organizing across the country, joining together as a movement, working to create a political lobby in Washington to bring awareness about the value of arts and culture and to increase the rights of artists as cultural workers. Throughout these years, artists were learning business skills through their work or through contact with these new cultural organizations.
Ruby: I had personally done tons of “technical assistance” work starting in the ’70s, working with small organizations, and had realized that, while there was support for organizations around planning, business management and marketing, there was almost nothing for individual artists. When Creative Capital set up shop in 1999, we were in the midst of two very divergent trends. On the one hand, the NEA had stopped supporting most individual artists’ projects; on the other hand, it was the “dot com” boom and “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” were becoming the watchwords of the era. People who had built successful and world-changing businesses were turning philanthropic, but they felt that traditional philanthropy wasn’t as geared toward impact and change as it might be. So venture philanthropy, sometimes called “high engagement grantmaking,” was born. Venture philanthropies understood that money is only part of the equation, so they combined money with mentorship to help improve efficiency and effectiveness.
The combination of money, mentorship and building skills to sustain an enterprise for the long term deeply influenced our model. Because of my past work with artist organizations, I knew that skills-building would have to be a part of what we offered to our artist grantees—along with money—to ensure that something would be residual to them long after the grant funds were gone.
Alyson: It was a very exciting time! The entrepreneurial thinking really energized the arts community. I remember working with our first group of grantees from a place of inquiry. What do you need to help you accomplish your project? How can we help you think about the bigger picture of your life and career? The investigation between Creative Capital and the earliest grantees was exciting for me because it was really bringing together so much knowledge and information into a systemic way of assisting artists, not only through financial support but also through career development. It really laid the foundation for what we did later with PDP.
A group shot from one of our earliest Professional Development Workshops in 2004

A group shot from one of our earliest Professional Development Workshops in 2004.

Ruby: I’m curious, do you remember a specific moment of genesis for PDP?
Alyson: Here’s what I remember: About two or three years into working with grantees, it was clear that many of the artists were beginning to have dramatically increased success using some of the skills they were gaining access to through the artist services program, especially strategic planning. I think the seed for what became PDP started with you noticing that many of our grantees were going out and sharing what they were learning with other artists, friends and colleagues. The logical follow-up to that was: If this information is working so well for our grantees, let’s find a way to share it with more artists.
Ruby: Yes, that’s what I remember too. I remember I had lunch with Elisabeth Subrin (2001 Film/Video grantee) and she told me that she had traded with an interior decorator friend, who designed Elisabeth’s apartment so it could function better as a workspace, and in exchange, Elisabeth walked her friend through our Strategic Planning process! I come back to the office after that lunch and said, “Why should this information be privatized to the small group of artists we are able to support with grants? Couldn’t we make it more widely available?” And you said, “That is my dream come true!”
Alyson: That idea, coupled with a funding opportunity from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, created the opportunity for the Professional Development Program. I remember you saying: “Here’s the funding. See if you can design a way for Creative Capital and our grantees to share what they are learning with other artists around the country.”
Ruby: When you think about the program then and now, what have been the biggest changes you have observed in artists’ needs?
Artists chat in working groups at the 2013 Artists Summer Institute.

Artists chat in working groups at the 2013 Artists Summer Institute.

Alyson: There are many needs that remain the same for just about all artists. Primarily, a need for skills in all things related to money and financial management, as well as planning skills like goal setting and time management, writing and communication skills. The biggest change I have seen over the past 10 years—no surprise—has to do with technology. When we started, it was not a necessity for an artist to have a website or aggressively take responsibility for their online presence,  but now it is very important for visibility. In the first year of the Internet for Artists workshop, we had to spend a lot of time explaining social media and Facebook, and how artists could use online tools. Now all these things are a given. Documentation of one’s work has also shifted from physical slides and videos to all digital, so artists have had to gain new skills in order to keep up with these changes. With so many more choices grabbing at our attention spans, artists are having to work harder for visibility. All this said, I do believe that quality, in-person experiences, a real conversation about your work with someone, actual, visceral art experiences have become even more valuable and memorable.
Ruby: One thing I have noticed that never changes is that word of mouth is still the best tool an artist has for getting the word out about their work. Technology can enhance and amplify that, but only when the sources of information are really trusted. As we all feel “pitched” to 24/7, authenticity becomes ever more prized. We are now helping people think about not just their work/life plan (the big picture), but also making a project plan and building a multi-faceted team. We definitely weren’t thinking about the need for that level of individualization at the beginning.
You have worked with a lot of organizations in communities across the country that support local artists. They have brought our workshops in to their communities, and this has been incredibly powerful, not just for the artists in those communities, but also for our artist leaders. What are the challenges and opportunities that you see for PDP’s national work moving forward?
Kirby Tepper leads a Verbal Communications Workshop at the 2013 Artists Summer Institute

Kirby Tepper leads a Verbal Communications Workshop at the 2013 Artists Summer Institute.

Alyson: In the beginning, when I was working on the first workshop model, I really wanted to create a learning experience that would recognize the challenges artists face and the successes they had accomplished so far—an experience that would inspire and motivate them to believe in themselves and recognize each other as resources and support. I knew that using an artist-to-artist teaching and learning model would be powerful, and that having a high ratio of artist leaders (6) to participants (20) would provide more individual attention for each participant. With our goal to provide this workshop experience nationally we needed and wanted to collaborate closely with local partner organizations that knew their communities of artists and wanted to provide this experience for them.
Our work with partnering organizations over the years has been a very important part of the program. They are the ones on the ground who continue to invest in building and sustaining the vitality of local communities of artists. Many of theses organizations are state and local arts councils, which have suffered budget cutbacks since the economic crash of 2008. The small nonprofit organizations have also suffered cutbacks in funding. It is harder now to find the money to bring PDP workshops, but their value is still recognized. So PDP is finding ways to make our curriculum content more accessible directly to artists through our Online Learning Program, where we have turned some of our most popular topics into live webinar experiences. This has been great because many more artists from all over the country and the world have signed up for these online offerings. We are also working on some blended learning models that combine in-person, recorded and live online educational experiences. These we plan to make available to organizations for their local artists and also directly to artists.
Ruby: I am so looking forward to what the blended learning brings to the offerings, by combining the best of the in-person workshops with the best of what technology offers. I think it is an exciting time for the program. Here’s to another great decade!
Learn more about PDP’s workshop offerings on our website, and check out our calendar of upcoming workshops and webinars.

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