The pandemic struck at an especially tough time for Alicia Moya Mendez, a teaching artist who had just moved to Oregon from North Carolina when everything shut down. Hoping to find teaching opportunities and build a new artistic community, she found herself isolated in a new land. She’d brought with her some preliminary ideas about an ambitious artistic project, a vague idea about setting up interactive installations at playgrounds to give kids hands-on experience with science and art. But she wasn’t sure how to develop that vision into something practical. Where would she even start? How could she prevent a playground company from making it more about commercialism than creativity?
Emily Miller was farther along on her latest project, but she too felt stuck. Her installation Ghost Net Landscape helps collect tons of used and reclaimed fishing gear and brings it into public spaces for community art creation. She’d promoted the first installment as an ocean-saving environmental art project, and invited other artists whose work she knew well to contribute. But Miller worried she wasn’t reaching a broader audience who didn’t already know about the threat human plastic production posed to the oceans. And the problem seemed so vast — what could a few dozen, or even a few hundred people who saw her exhibit really do about it?
Lindsey Holcomb’s project, #colorsofms, transformed diagnostic Magnetic Resonance Image scans into powerful paintings. But she too felt as though she was addressing a relatively narrow community — other people with Multiple Sclerosis, when the point was to raise broader social awareness of the disability. And though the project involved collaborations in 22 states and nine countries, none were in Oregon. “I didn’t know how I fit in the fabric of Washington County as a leader or mentor to others,” she remembers.
THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series
All three Washington County artists, along with seven others, found solutions to the challenges inhibiting their art in a new, unique arts and leadership education project. The two-year old Arts and Culture Leadership Incubator program, a project of the Washington County arts organization Tualatin Valley Creates, helps artists in the region find more than artistic answers or even business and leadership skills. It also helps them find community — and contribute to it through their art. This week, the incubator’s second annual cohort of participants released video showcases of their work, which you can see here.
But the artistic product itself is only part of the incubator’s value to its home. Even more important is the connections it’s fostering among artists and their community.
Once known as Westside Cultural Alliance, the nonprofit Tualatin Valley Creates is Washington County’s primary arts advocacy organization. It hosts development workshops, networking events, an online arts repository, and more. Although Hillsboro and Beaverton are among Oregon’s largest cities and have their own arts departments, TVC is uniquely positioned to stitch together an arts community amid the state’s most geographically and demographically diverse population.
While the region’s rapid growth had boosted the county’s economy and population, a 2018 study showed that the arts hadn’t kept up, leaving residents fewer opportunities to access arts and culture programs than other Oregon urban areas. While institutions like Beaverton Civic Theater, Hillsboro’s Bag n Baggage and the soon-to-open Reser Center for the Arts provide a variety of venues, arts education programs haven’t met the growing demand for skills appropriate to mid-career and emerging artists.
Many artists and arts lovers, says TVC executive director Raziah Roushan, have recently arrived from the increasingly unaffordable Portland metro area — a phenomenon no doubt accelerated by the pandemic, as has happened in other major metro areas around the country. “There’s an artistic exodus from Portland proper, with artists migrating either due east or due west,” she explains. “ In surveying our audiences, we’re seeing people move from Portland zip codes to Tigard, Hillsboro, Cedar Mill, Raleigh Hills and other areas.”
From the outset, Roushan explains, TVC wanted to make sure the incubator served the particular needs of its community — not replicate other arts and leadership programs rooted elsewhere. Compared to other areas, “Washington County is very collaborative,” she says. “Each of our cities and unincorporated areas have city-appointed arts council advocates. People want to come together and amplify their own pride districts.”
Rather than importing big-name events from other arts capitals — a typical response of culturally insecure provincials — TVC decided to invest in its own denizens’ creativity, to build cultural capital from the ground up from native ingredients. After many stakeholder meetings and research into various approaches around the state and the country, then-TVC executive director Cindy Dauer and her TVC team conceived the Arts and Culture Leadership Incubator, “part-leadership development, part-business incubator,” which “supports local artists and cultural advocates in building a thriving, inclusive cultural and creative environment for our community,” TVC’s website proclaims.
Collaboration and Community
What distinguishes TVC’s Arts Incubator from many other arts education initiatives is its values. Its creators clearly enunciated the principles they sought to advance — and put those into practice through their choices of faculty and participants. Judging by its first two classes this year and last, the pre-eminent values seem to revolve around community and collaboration.
“Washington County arts organizations are very collaborative,” Roushan explains, noting that many of the region’s galleries, cooperative organizations, theaters and more tend to be open to collective ideas, rather than many of those in Portland that seem to follow a singular (often the founder’s) vision.
Those values permeated TVC’s calls for incubator faculty and participants (they don’t use the word “students” for the selected learning artists) both this year and last. Naturally, TVC’s request for faculty applications asked about skills and accomplishments. But Roushan said they also wanted to know, “Who are you? What’s your story? What networks are you connected to? What can you hand down to the next generation of arts leaders? What obstacles have you faced in your discipline, and how would you share ways to address them?”
The emphasis on collaboration drew Roberto Gonzalez to apply for the first faculty cohort. A Beaverton-based public broadcast video producer and musician who was one of the first-year cohort faculty, Gonzalez learned about music at neighborhood art centers growing up and going to college in Havana, Cuba. He cherished the way they embedded creativity in the community. “When I saw the project I fell in love with it,” he recalls. “I wanted to share my experience with younger generations but also be collaborative.”
So did one of this year’s faculty members, Kristin Solomon. “They were all learning how to work together, and that’s why I wanted to be part of it,” she says.
Solomon’s profession of coaching artists on business strategies, marketing, project management and fundraising equipped her to teach those skills in the incubator. Her other job as director of Portland’s Blackfish Gallery, which is run as a cooperative, accustomed her to assimilating diverse ideas into a common vision. Solomon thought the incubator would also allow her to be not just a coach but also a mentor to emergent artists who wanted to work collaboratively. It would also help her formulate her own startup course.
Faculty members benefited from the collaborative environment as much as the participants. “Even though I was part of the faculty, I was learning from the other faculty members and artists,” Gonzalez remembers. “They were learning from us and teaching us a lot. We were all collaborating together. It felt more like a community of creators getting together and sharing their experiences” than a traditional one-way educational environment. His mother passed away during the incubator, and it brought him comfort to be able to share that experience with other artists.
Like this year’s other three faculty members, musician Julian Saporiti taught a long workshop via videoconference. Even though it was still a remote experience, he found it life-giving after so many months of artistic isolation. “To hear other people’s ideas, you realize that’s what we lost in the pandemic,” he says. “It provided that lifeline when you really need it. It was so successful because collaboration was allowed to be fostered. The participants are bringing as much to the conversation as the faculty.”
The workshops (which happened this year on six Saturdays in February through April) are free for the selected participants, who can also earn a $500 stipend to advance their work through, say, creating or improving their websites, photography or video to showcase their work, gathering materials, even hiring babysitters to allow the artists some studio time for creation.
The incubator’s exact curriculum varies with each year’s particular cohort of faculty and students, tailored to their particular needs, experiences and strengths. “It’s about meeting participants wherever they are and navigating curriculum content around them,” Roushan explains. “We wanted to scoop them up like a mama duck and her ducklings,” equipping them with skills that will help them survive a world that can be tough for artists. “We put the faculty members in a room together and said, ‘What basic tools do you want to share that any arts leader or entrepreneur needs? Now you create the curriculum.’ Each year, there’s still a lot of experimentation.”
During its first year, “it felt like the curriculum was being built in every workshop,” says Gonzalez. He emphasized the importance of artists documenting their work and creative process and then using the resulting video and imagery to promote their work in social media and beyond.
Given that artists today have to be their own managers, sessions have so far touched on businessy skills like grant writing, finding donors, marketing, branding, writing press releases, applying for Small Business Administration loans, filling out financial statements, making budgets, crafting project timelines, creating evaluation procedures, and more. Participants learn all of these skills from fellow artists farther along in their careers who know how to apply them to making a sustainable artistic practice.
“Not everybody can go get a graduate degree,” says Roushan. “Art college degrees aren’t always giving real world experience anyway. The incubator faculty are all working artists. They have their own jobs and clients. So for participants who’ve never met another artist at that level, they get advice they’d otherwise be paying thousands of dollars for — and they might not even get an opportunity like that there.”
The incubator isn’t just about being a better artist — it’s also about helping artists use their creativity and motivation to benefit the community around them. So in choosing participants, incubator faculty and staff prioritized community connection and potential over the insider credentials that sometimes determine which artists get public support.
“We developed this curriculum and these workshops for people to share what they were working on,” Solomon says, “and then learn how to apply what they were learning to their own project, and have somebody else there to help you organize it and connect it to your community. That’s not always the case when it comes to the arts. Some people care more about the outcome and not about the community you’re building. ”
For example, the participants created mind maps to show what communities they belonged to and who they could have an impact on, and also mission statements that encouraged the artists to figure out their own visions and what they had to offer to varied communities.
“Artists don’t do anything in a vacuum,” Solomon says. “If you can really know who you are — your skill set, values, the things you’re passionate about — but you also know your community and what their needs are, you can find that symbiotic relationship where you’re able to serve your community with your skills, your heart and your passion.”
Julian Saporiti drew on his work at the intersection of art, activism, and historical scholarship to show the others ways to bring creativity to a broader community. Though he also had a more conventional music-educational background, having studied at Boston’s famed Berklee School of Music and taught at several universities and high schools, Saporiti admired the incubator’s approach of encouraging conversation and connection with artists’ broader community.
“That’s different from education programs that focus on individual virtuosity,” he says. “The incubator classes were very much emboldening participants, with the aim being to spread that collaborative approach to the rest of the community.”
Just as the incubator’s first year was winding up, the pandemic struck, shutting down live events everywhere — including the planned showcases for the first-year participants. Like so many other art institutions, the incubator pivoted to a video model. Fortunately, they had Gonzalez — a professional video maker — in the faculty, and he’d already interviewed the artists and filmed parts of the workshops for introductory videos originally intended to promote the live event. He was able to use that material to create the video showcases you see here for both years’ participants.
The pandemic sparked further changes in the incubator’s second year. Workshops went virtual. In choosing faculty and participants for the 2021 class, “we were looking at the world around us,” Roushan recalls, including the national conversation over police violence, race, Covid and its impact on families and more. “So when we looked at seeking faculty members this year, we asked, ‘How do you use your art to communicate with the larger community, to reach beyond yourself and network? How do you translate what’s going on around you?’”
The incubator’s collaborative approach worked for at least three participants. Emily Miller found the incubator’s open collaboration process so enlightening that she’s adapting it to her own design for her Ghost Net Landscape, which she’d initially imagined was primarily about helping save the oceans from plastics.
“The incubator showed me that that’s not why I’m doing Ghost Net Landscape,” she says. “What I realized during the incubator and looking at it from different perspectives is that I had to keep redirecting conversations away from the same narrative we hear about ocean plastic — whose fault is it? How can we solve it? The incubator helped me get from that point to, ‘OK we understand this problem — now where are we going?’ I want people to focus on creative transformation, and how they can apply it in their own lives — even if they have nothing to do with ocean plastic.” The changes she’s making as a result broaden her project’s relevance to more people.
Miller’s post-incubator version invited classes of Pacific University college students to work collaboratively on their own ideas about the subject. “I gave them a prompt — make a puppet and tell a story of creative transformation on video — and they created their own goals and processes,” she explains. “I was just giving them space and guidelines and letting them figure out how they wanted to approach it. We got so much more creativity out of it than me telling them what to do.”
For Miller, opening people to creative possibilities can have greater community value than persuading a relatively few people to reduce their plastic use. “This is how we can all make a difference,” she says. “We don’t have to think of ourselves as artists or activists — everybody is capable of creative transformation. Maybe I would have gotten to the same place without the incubator, but even if I did, it would have taken me a lot longer without the framework they provided.”
The artists also formed their own community, sharing challenges, insecurities, hopes and more in a supportive environment that made it easier for their imaginations to roam. “We chuckled once that we were becoming a therapy group,” Holcomb remembered, as they confessed their mutual feelings of incompetence at non-artistic necessities like taxes, grant-writing, and self-promotion through social media. “It was just the most wonderful experience. Those relationships have lasted. I still stay connected with everyone in it.”
For Lindsey Holcomb, whose work exists mainly on the internet, it also provided a non-virtual community in her home area, and an audience beyond her fellow MS-affected people. In the incubator, for the first time, she was getting feedback from people who were neither involved in the MS community nor were ink artists like herself. That made her think about how to tell her story clearly to a diverse community with little knowledge of the subject or medium, and to consider how to make it relevant to broader groups.
“I appreciated having people to bounce ideas off of who weren’t within my niche,” she says. “It really just broadened my scope as I came out of it. That’s the value of sharing ideas with people who are not in my discipline. I recognized all these communities I could touch.”
Holcomb expects the broader perspective to persist. “We spent a lot of time on the language of our projects and who our audience was and who is this not reaching, not serving. It’s broadened the matrix of decisions I make about the kind of work I put out.”
She’s not alone. Holcomb remembers one participant, Natalie Davis-Eltahir, who initially felt shy even claiming the mantle of artist because she made wearable art. When the other artists responded enthusiastically to her work, and suggested ways of getting her work out into the community (through holding public “wrap parties” for her head wraps), “you could see a hands-on moment of transformation” in her confidence, Holcomb says. “That kind of moment repeated over and over again with everybody.”
According to faculty member Kristin Solomon, one of this year’s participants, Jamie Cormier, exemplifies how the incubator’s emphasis on collaboration and community affected the art that emerged. Cormier had initially thought she might want to start a gallery focused on art about mental health. Thanks to the conversations in the incubator, she decided instead to partner with people in the community who were already working in that area, and to focus instead on what she was passionate about: not the administrative work of founding and running a gallery (while raising three children), but instead helping them make art that served mental health. She wound up creating art boxes that would go out to people with mental health issues who could use them to create art.
The welcoming environment encouraged Moya Mendez to bring up her tentative idea about science and art education and playgrounds. Providentially, one of her fellow incubator participants, Joseph Nguyen, is an architect. He saw the opportunity for a collaboration. The other participants helped her figure out how to keep the idea more about creativity than commercialism, connect to educational and other community institutions, and more. The project website goes live later this month.
“This is a safe space. a place where artists can share ideas,” says Moya Mendez. “I put myself out there, and it turned out the person I needed to help me was right here. Everything he’s good at, I’m not; everything I’m good at, he’s not.” It was an ideal example of how diversity and collaboration can inspire creativity.
Moya Mendez believes the diversity and community emphasis baked into the incubator from the outset makes it uniquely valuable. “Sure, you can sign up and take a random class, but being there week after week in this cohort of people learning together provided such a growth opportunity. That diversity of artists promotes so many connections being created. The incubator provided a lot of connection for the artists ourselves in a time when we did not have any.”
Roushan says artist feedback has been positive, with the most common request for more time and space allotted for the artists to connect with each other outside the workshops. She also reports that after the first showcase, its website received as many visitors in five days as it had in the previous year. Like many arts organizations forced to go virtual, TVC found that putting offerings online instead of requiring audience members to come to a physical event vastly extended its geographical reach. She hopes it will turn more people on to the incubator and other programs like its extensive arts calendar, resource lists and more. And she’d love to expand the incubator, if more community donors will step up to fund it.
The participants and faculty believe that the community focus that made the incubator so beneficial to the artists also makes it valuable to, well, the community. “What made [the incubator] feel so different for me from the beginning was the true community focus,” says Miller, “to the point of decentralizing and trying not to have a leader who’s telling everybody what to do. We were all coming at the same community issues from our own perspectives, and figuring out the best way to involve the public in what we do. The common goal we all shared was building the community.”
Miller especially appreciates TVC’s role in bolstering artistic community in a diverse region that’s not one of the urban “superstar cities” that soak up attention and arts resources. “So much investment has gone into city centers,” she says. “There’s lots of people who don’t live in Portland who are equally creative. That’s the challenge of the future: in that environment, how do you create a creative community that’s healthy and supportive?”
She thinks TVC and the incubator are making that happen. And she’s putting her mortgage where her mouth is. The organization is one of the reasons she chose to buy a house in Forest Grove. “We are in a moment where people are redefining what an artist has to be and where they have to live. Having a strong organization here really trying to make an art community right here, that’s one of the reasons I felt comfortable staying here.”
Gonzalez thinks the incubator’s approach springs from TVC’s collaborative values. “Something I’ve learned over the years is you have to work as a team to develop any project and be successful,” he says. “In art, the collaboration has to be not only between artists and cultural institutions but also between local government and cultural institutions, and TVC has that vision of promoting art and culture locally, but also integrating different art and cultural institutions and working with city and county government, creators, small businesses, the whole community.”
Faculty members think that the incubator’s collaborative and community oriented approaches, as well as the practical skills it taught, will also equip artists to get more involved in public discourse — and that will make the community better for everyone.
“What would we have done during this pandemic year without music and art to connect us?” she asks. “Artists should be leaders in our community. They do bring a new perspective and creativity to the table. The incubator is a great model . I’d love to see it replicated in other counties and on a regional or state level. I hope we’ll see more people take this and apply it to their community.”
Learn more about TVC and the incubator here. Click the names below to check out video showcases from other Incubator participants.
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