Go Deeper

Artists U: “Doing nothing for artists since 2006”

Posted June 19th, 2009

The quote above may be an exaggeration, but Andrew Simonet (Headlong Dance Theater, more.), the founder of Artists U, told me yesterday that the project is extremely focused on helping performing artists use the tools they already have to advance their artistic work and lead a balanced life at the same time.

Artists U won’t write grants for you, and they won’t sort out your finances, but they’ll support and guide you while you do it for yourself. This year, the nomination process is open for the first time, and letters of intent are due tomorrow (that’s Saturday, June 20).

I talked to Andrew yesterday about the brief history of Artists U, what the program’s like for participants, and how sometimes artists need to get out of their own way to find success.

Why did you start Artists U?
In Headlong, all three of us started spending time answering other artists’ questions about running an organization, fundraising, PR, because in the scheme of things we relatively have our shit together. We were spending a lot of time giving advice, but it was inefficient, and was like giving people fish rather than teaching them to fish.

I became one of the facilitators of Creative Capital, and that was an inspiration. They have great tools, practices and approaches that are very positive and uplifting and use the skills that artists already have; they’re both very forgiving and very rigorous. Talking to Nick Stuccio, we envisioned something local, and longer, lasting for a year. Creative Capital is a weekend that’s like a big revival meeting and gets everybody inspired, but a lot of work artists need to do takes time to implement. So I talked to Nick about that and then LINC [Leveraging Investments in Creativity] was coming to Philadelphia and we pitched it, and along with my first two facilitators, Jennifer Childs and Janera Solomon, we planned the curriculum. It was hard but it was great.

What was hard about it?
Artists are tough. We resist change, we love being negative, we’re incredibly capable but we’re really complainy. For artists who are talented, a lot of what’s standing in their way is themselves. It’s not the only thing; there are real challenges. But that’s the tough part: getting our own bullshit out of the way.

I always ask artists this question: “Who’s a generation older than you whose work you respect, but who has a balanced and sustainable life?” Some artists can’t think of anyone! We have all these mentors with artistic skills working all the time and leading crazy lives, but without the skills to make their lives balanced.

It feels like survival of the bitterest, especially in dance. Those that stick around longest are sometimes bitterest because of their sense that to have a live in the arts is to sacrifice everything else. Breaking through that – I don’t think it’s so hard to do, but we constantly press up against it. It’s not so much the logistical problems, but the limits we place on ourselves. We’re always trying to out-complain each other – “I didn’t get this grant, and I don’t have any money, and my job sucks.”

So what are some strategies Artists U uses to get past this?
First of all, we have a no bitching rule. You can’t bitch, you can’t gripe.

There’s a transition from being career-driven to being mission-driven that we believe in. The career is just a way to achieve the mission. In a weird way I think people who meet with more material forms of success and recognition – they’ve done what they’ve cared about all along. They’ve done what they’ve cared about regardless of whether the cheesy inbred powers-that-be in the art world are going to pay attention. We try to get artists to see their work as something more generous rather than the more selfish thing of, “When am I going to get the recognition I deserve?”

[Artists U] is for performing artists, and there are so little resources and money in dance and theater, that it’s not worth complaining if you don’t get a little grant, because that’s not going to fix your life.

Artists feel this sense of competitiveness and lack of recognition at every level of success, to winning a Guggenheim and beyond. But focus on what you want to bring to the world, and the recognition follows that.

Once they’re a part of the program, what’s the process like for participating artists?
There’s a big all day initial session that’s like the Creative Captial program [akin to strategic planning for individual artists]. Once a month we meet to talk about a specific issue – grant writing, artist’s statement, publicity and marketing – sometimes with guests coming in to present. Once or twice a month they meet with a facilitator to step back, look long term, and look broadly at all aspects of their life. And at how to prioritize a couple of things and work towards those things in a workable way, to make their own little two-year plan.

In terms of actual time it’s like 40 hours, total – 15 hours one-on-one, 25 hours in a group. But people work outside of the sessions too. Concrete things that all participants make are:
– a new artists statement,
– a realistic look at their financial situation and needs: what their current situation is and how much money they need to earn to live reasonably, without financial panic,
– their two-year plan,
– their elevator pitch.

It’s a lot of validation and support, being in a room full of artists who aren’t competing with each other. Dance communities are famous for being the cattiest, most back-stabbiest, and bitchy, so it’s very unusual to have a community where people are so supportive, even across disciplines. You’ll see hip hop artists and ballet artists hanging out and talking with each other. It’s real great conversation and support. One of the mantras of Artists U is that success of other artists is good for me.

What’s different about the selection process this year?
People are allowed to self-nominate. In the past nominations were strictly from leaders in the arts world, maybe 120, 140 names. [Artists U] is for people who MAKE stuff – if you’re strictly an actor or dancer it’s not for you.

We opened up the process partly to demystify it and partly to make sure we weren’t missing people, although most people who have applied have also been recommended by others.

It started as this pilot program, keeping it small, no administration, everything’s very low impact. For the artists who are facilitators it has to be reasonable – practice what you preach.

If you turn it in really late and it’s really badly done, it’s actually going to help your chances. The worse people have been, the more certain I’ve been that they’d be perfect for Artsist U. The whole problem [with grant and artistic support] for artists is that it’s totally self-selecting. Anybody who’d show up for something like this probably already has their act together, at least a little.

Tell me about major accomplishments of the participants.
Team Office is a shared administrative structure for small independent choreographers, and it’s in its first year. A facilitator and a few artists decided to start this.

The things that excite me are when artists say things like, “I got offered this gig and got a much higher fee than the initial offer,” or, “I said no to something.” When you look at dance, there’s a bazillion dance artists in their 20s, and like three in their 50s. It’s a huge problem for the form and our culture. They’re leaving not because they don’t care about the form, but because they can’t make it work.

But take somebody like Elba Hevia y Vaca. While she was at Artists U, she started an individual giving campaign, started a board, and opened a school. And she’s going to do a residency at Jacob’s Pillow. It was just about giving her the space to launch.

The Artists U motto should be “We won’t do anything for you,” or “Doing nothing for artists since 2006.” For Elba, it was just freeing up her to focus on what she cared about. Her supporters were all begging her to let them help. And Artists U helped her with prioritizing what she cared about artistically, and running a company and school.

That’s the kind of clarity that when you have it in your artistic life it’s fabulous being an artist. When you don’t have it, it’s like getting slapped in the face 1,000 times a day. Why am I even doing this? I’m just getting slapped in the face, and not even making any money.

As a working artist yourself, have you learned anything by helping other artists to develop their careers?
I’m always learning particular little strategies and enhancing how I work. As facilitators we started giving each other little one-on-one sessions. It’s just a practice of stepping back and having someone who will listen and help you think about the bigger picture and think long term. I have two kids now, so a lot of stuff for me is about time and energy and my attention’s shifted really radically. How I used to get things done has kind of gone out the window.

What makes us [at Artists U] helpful is that we’re very much in it. Only a drunk can help a drunk, and we’re all drunks. We’re all last-minute and complainy and negative and scared.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photo by Josh McIlvain.