Building A Sustainable Life: Artists U York
In partnership with the Women’s Giving Circle, the Cultural Alliance of York County created ArtsConnect: a central hub to connect & strengthen artists through professional development classes, networking opportunities, and marketing/referral services, as well as connect our arts community to the population at large.
As part of ArtsConnect, the Cultural Alliance conducted research of arts service organizations across the country that currently provide training programs, leadership programs, advocacy, shared service models, joint marketing, micro-loan programs, and arts incubators to identify the right offerings that will best serve our creative community. We also engaged regional artists and arts organizations in research to identify current tools and opportunities, and what our local organizations and artists need to be successful.
The research/surveys of our own community confirmed that artists and small arts organizations in York County are being woefully underserved in the following key areas:
• Training and professional development: Conventional and lifelong learning opportunities.
• Validation: The ascription of value to what artists do.
• Demand/markets: Society’s appetite for artists and what they do, and the markets that translate this appetite into financial compensation.
• Material supports: Access to the financial and physical resources artists need for their work: employment, insurance and similar benefits, awards, space, equipment, and materials.
• Communities and networks: Inward connections to other artists and people in the cultural sector; outward connections to people not primarily in the cultural sector.
One of the programs we found in our research was Artists U, which focuses on working with artists to build a successful, sustainable life through their work. Together with Artists U founder Andrew Simonet and input from four local artist facilitators, we created a professional development program based on the national Artists U model to strengthen the overall arts community for long-term impact.
We held our first Artists U intensive June 23-24, 2017 with 30 York County artists. Following the intensive, four facilitators hosted working groups of these artists that met monthly for five months.
All four working groups completed their five-month program in December, 2017. In-person exit interviews and online surveys of participants revealed the following results:
• 3 artists were able to leave their non art-making jobs and became working artists full-time.
• Participants on average gave the impact of the Artists U working groups a 9 out of 10, citing the connection with artists in their group and the measurement of their progress/accountability as the most impactful part of the group meetings.
• 78% of working group participants will continue to meet with the artists in their group going forward.
To continue this momentum, we held a reunion with our first cohort of Artists U artists and launched our 2nd cohort intensive/working groups on April 13-14, 2018. Rita Whitney served as lead facilitator, and we utilized the first group of Artists U attendees to share what they learned and their experiences with our new group.
Artists just signing up for our 2nd Artists U got to hear from our alumni first-hand what the Artists U intensive and working groups meant to their work/life balance, trajectory, and goal-setting. One alum spoke of quitting her day-job that made her miserable to do her art full time thanks to the program; another talked about how she changed her work from project-based to platform-based so that it would be ongoing and last decades, not years. “This, I want this,” exclaimed one of our current Artists U artists. “This is what I’ve been looking for.” When one new attendee described how they are working three jobs and exhausted, one of our alumni stated; “You’ve come to the right place. We used to be you.”
Our four local working group facilitators were recruited to give a deeper dive into the artist community, inviting those who may not self-identify as artists to the 2nd intensive. We had a mix of disciplines, including music, visual arts, performing arts, dance, sculpture, design, and production. Artists stretched the range of ages, genders, and cultures.
In our 2nd Artists U, 20 artists came together to share tools and principles artists have used to thrive. Over their two days, they shared some specific, practical work (planning, finances) and some big picture thinking. And they looked at the specific challenges facing artists: the demands of creating and producing the work, funding cycles, and a supposedly embodied life that too often ends up in front of a laptop for eight hours.
Thanks to a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, we were able to open up the 2nd Artists U to artists around the state. Through our travel and lodging stipends, artists as far away as Bethlehem PA and State College PA came to Artists U intensive to learn how to plan a sustainable practice and start working groups in their own artist communities.
These 20 area artists and those around the state will now begin meeting monthly for five months to do the core practices of sustainability: planning, financial clarity, time management, and writing about their work. The Cultural Alliance of York County and our lead facilitator Rita Whitney will be there during these five months to track their progress and measure the impact that the Artists U program has on their work. If our first cohort is any indication, there’s no limit to what these artists can accomplish with the right tools and the empowerment that comes with a sustainable life. As one of our attendees said; “words can’t express my gratitude for an afternoon of sharing, laughing, guidance, and respect. I have often thought about leaving York, but today I felt that York will always be my Artist home.”