Reflections on the Artists Thrive Summit

By Mollie Flanagan, Individual Artist Program Director

“If you measure what you value, people will value what you measure.” David Grant

At the end of July, I headed down to Berea, Kentucky to join over 100 artists, arts educators, and arts administrators in Appalachia to spend several days together creating, reflecting, and thinking about the power artists have and how thriving artists lead to thriving communities. The Artists Thrive Summit, organized and presented by the Tremaine Foundation and hosted by Berea College, is in its third year of creating, expanding, fine tuning, and putting into practice the Artist Thrive tool. I attended the summit last year as well, and worked on a research project with The Tremaine Foundation while in grad school that helped inform and create the underpinnings for this large project.

After a very early flight from Providence to Baltimore to Lexington and a 45 minute drive to Berea, I kicked off my Summit experience by participating in the Pre-Summit. This three hour session was focused on folks that had attended previous Summit and/or have used and are familiar with the Artist Thrive tool. This group of about 25 folks from around the country delved into what’s working (and what isn’t), how we’re all using the rubrics in a variety of contexts, and sharing best practices and ways of initiating dialogue using the rubrics.

This might be a good time to back up and explain what Artists Thrive is, and why over 100 people gather together to think about and share best practices around it. Artists Thrive is a series of rubrics focused on the idea that thriving artists create thriving communities – and assessing and thinking about the conditions in which artists are able to thrive. Currently, there are two rubric series, I Am An Artist and I Work With Artists. There are two big things I love about these rubrics and this tool: artists are at the center of the both the tool’s purpose and its creation; and that these rubrics are designed to be iterated, re-created, and changed. Some of that iteration and creation takes place at the Artists Thrive Summit- new rubric categories were created last year, and we got the chance to preview those rubrics this year. This year’s Summit also focused on a potential I Teach Artists in Higher Education tool – if it’s needed, and if so, what categories and measures do we care about. I highly recommend spending some time looking at these rubrics, filling them out for yourself, and checking in a few times a year to see where you are thriving and where you could be doing better. Beyond the rubrics, the Stories section of the website gives you examples of where people, organizations, and projects land in different parts of the rubric and why. There is also a great Wiki with a wide variety of resources for artists, grantmakers, and organizations working with artists. The Artists Thrive tool is based on something that I talk to artists about all the time – formative assessment – but I usually refer to it as defining success for yourself. Formative assessment, imagining what success looks like before you start and along the way, helps you identify what you value and what your goals are, and then gives you a way to measure that. As David Grant, author of The Social Profit Handbook and one of the main forces behind this tool, puts it: “If you measure what you value, people will value what you measure.” Defining qualitative metrics based on what success looks like to you or your organization or your project partners enables you to measure success based on your goals. So, think about the Artist Thrive tools as a jumping off point, a place to initiate dialogue, not a static assessment. Make it work for you.

My handbroom is in the front!

OK, back to the Summit. After a fantastic opening night of music, food, and catching up with friends and colleagues from around the country, we dove into 3 full days of thinking about what it would be like if artists were thriving, and what conditions will get us to that point. We talked about what things higher education in the arts is doing well, and where we could, as a broad community, better prepare art majors to thrive in a career as an artist. We talked about the challenges facing artists and communities around the country, while firmly rooting in Appalachia and seeing and hearing about the specific challenges being faced in rural coal country hit hard by the opioid epidemic. We crowd sourced solutions and talked honestly and openly about the challenges facing us in our careers, organizations, and communities. We made small hand brooms, sat on the front porch of a historic hotel and tavern and listened to all of the bugs sing to us, experienced some of the amazing art being made in Berea and it’s surrounding areas, and heard poets interpret and synthesize the difficulties facing all of us. This small Summit is a special place where genuine connections are made, folks feel safe and supported enough to talk honestly about the biggest, scariest, trickiest challenges facing all of us back home, and maybe the only of the many arts related conferences I have attended where artists and art are at the center.

I headed back to Rhode Island energized, and thinking about 5 ideas/tasks/goals/themes that resonated with me from my 5 days in rural Kentucky.

As with all arts workers, I am constantly battling my capacity: there are way too many things I want to do in my role at RISCA for me to successfully execute. It’s something I’ve been struggling with this summer, and I was reminded while at the Artists Thrive Summit that I need to spend time prioritizing on both a macro and micro level. I need to think about which of the things I want to do are the most important and impactful, what am I hearing all the time, but particularly during our current strategic planning process, are the most needed services or programs or grant making that I can oversee in my role. On a smaller level, how can I be more efficient in executing these projects and programs, how can I prioritize on a month to month, week to week, and day to day basis. And I’ll be honest: one of my biggest fears coming home was that I would jump immediately back into the weeds, just focusing on what absolutely needed to get done today with no time or space to think about the big picture. The bad news is that is absolutely exactly what happened – and one of the reasons I’m writing this blog a month later, from home at 9pm in my pajamas. So, here’s a very public reminder to myself to do better at prioritizing.

The second theme that is still banging around in my brain is the idea of customization: using this tool as a starting point, and making what you/I/we need or want from it. The practice of Artists Thrive is iterative and community created, it’s ever changing in it’s published form, but also constantly being used by individuals or organizations or project groups as a starting point. This circles back to David Grant’s idea of measuring what you value, and using a community specific process to determine what you value. As he puts it in the Social Profit Handbook, “I will advocate for creating homegrown and even idiosyncratic assessment tools with your colleagues that unite everyone in your organization around a clear, shared vision of what it is you are trying to accomplish together.” The ability and directive to make something useful to you, to the specific group or project, is vital to a life as an artist.

Summit Group Agreements

The last three are quick and pretty self explanatory – and, in my opinion, reflective of RISCA’s new, not yet officially adopted, values statement. Theme/call to action number three for me is the urgent need to share power with artists and other community stakeholders, to work together to create more power for artists and folks working in the arts, and to develop strong peer support in order to achieve this. The fourth idea is around building genuine connections to community. This applies in two ways: the first, in my connections with the people and communities I serve; the second, in supporting artists to work in and on effective, genuine community development utilizing the arts. And my final takeaway, the one that has been turning up again and again everywhere I turn, is to always be storytelling. Talking about the importance of art in general, of art for a community to thrive, storytelling about the varied and vital work RISCA is both doing and supporting – this is a way for us to build power, to communicate why artists and art and funding for artists and art are important.

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