Take-Home Kits, Virtual Studio Time a Lifeline for Artists With Disabilities

Creative Growth artist Malia holds up her work during a Zoom watercolor class. (Creative Growth)

On a regular weekday, Bay Area arts organizations NIAD (Nurturing Independence Through Artistic Development), Creative Growth and Creativity Explored are bustling hives of production. Artists with disabilities paint, draw, create textile work, take dance breaks and confer with teaching artists and their studio-mates, drawing inspiration from the palpable buzz of energy.

“There’s hugging all day long because there’s so much affection and joy in the room,” says Elizabeth Brodersen, executive director of Oakland’s Creative Growth. Hosting 50–75 artists a day on-site, Creative Growth, Richmond’s NIAD and San Francisco’s Creativity Explored have existed since 1974, 1982 and 1983, respectively. Some of their artists and staff members have been with the organizations for decades.

But regular weekdays don’t exist anymore. Now, like everyone else in the Bay Area, the hundreds of artists who regularly visit these art centers are isolated in their homes, cut off from their communities and experiencing the loss of daily activities that create healthy routines.

What 'before' looked like: Visiting artists Monica Canilao gives a jewelry workshop at Creative Growth's studio. (Creative Growth)

Committed to providing support to their artists, each organization has translated their programs and services to comply with shelter-in-place orders, an undertaking that involves one-on-one check-ins, delivering kits of art supplies, learning new technologies and trying to keep the spirit of each institution alive remotely.

“We’ve basically had to reorganize our entire service delivery model,” says Linda Johnson, Creativity Explored’s executive director.

NIAD, Creative Growth and Creativity Explored, all rooted in hands-on art-making and face-to-face interactions, are turning to technology in an effort to reach their artists at home. Those “at home” situations vary: artists live in group homes, with family members or alone. Not everyone has access to a phone. Not everyone is verbal. The de facto video conferencing software may be inaccessible.

For those able to join, NIAD has instituted a daily 11am check-in via Zoom to maintain the sense of community; some of those meetings are followed by games of bingo. “Twenty to thirty-five people every day do attend,” says Executive Director Amanda Eicher of their town hall video gatherings. She explains a good number of those attendees are staff members. “I think our staff get as much out of the morning meetings as everybody.”

An artist supply kit for NIAD studio artist Donzell Lewis. (Amanda Eicher)

Creativity Explored is working with their funder Golden Gate Regional Center to get more technology—iPads and Samsung tablets—to artists. Even if artists aren’t interested in making digital art, these tools can provide a glimpse of a friendly face or a much-needed conversation. After Creative Growth organized its first video meeting, one artist said of seeing studio-mates and staff, “They make my life beautiful.”

Brodersen, Johnson and Eicher all note the impressive speed at which their teams have adapted their programming. NIAD’s artist kits include a playful guide to being an artist in every circumstance, drawing prompts and handwritten “We miss you!” notes. Eicher says NIAD decided at the start to keep staff fully employed through the crisis. “Because we made that early commitment, every single staff member has designed a new role for themselves in this context,” she says.

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Faced with at least another month of sheltering at home, Creative Growth has reduced some staff member’s hours, but Brodersen says the organization’s primary concern is guaranteeing health care to employees at pre-closure levels. Creativity Explored has kept over 90% of its staff employed with full hours, and plans to fully restore the jobs of those who have been furloughed.

All three organizations have applied for the Paycheck Protection Program, but how much they can expect—and when—remains an open question. Expected revenue loss also comes in the form of delayed or augmented fundraising events. Creativity Explored had to cancel their annual gala, which Johnson says brings in an estimated 10% of their revenue budget. They’ll host an online auction on May 1 instead.

Creativity Explored artist Allura Fong works at home. (Creativity Explored)

Likewise, Creative Growth’s annual fashion show was originally scheduled to take place on April 18. Not only is it the nonprofit’s sole fundraiser, it’s a validating event for the artists themselves. “It’s a major way for the artists to be connected to the wider community and be celebrated on stage with their creations,” Brodersen explains. As a replacement, they’re organizing an “online party” for April 25, featuring photos of artists working from home, a Q&A with gallery staff and a dance session.

“The goal is to create an uplifting experience for attendees of all ages that leaves everyone feeling energized, hopeful and inspired,” Brodersen says.

Outside of these fundraisers, NIAD, Creative Growth and Creativity Explored sell their artists’ work on an ongoing basis, with a portion of each sale going directly to the artists. “For the artists it’s really important to have that ongoing income,” Eicher says. “It makes a big difference, especially in this time.”

Creative Growth artist Eli Cooper shows off his workspace at home. (Creative Growth)

Even as they address the immediate material and emotional needs of their artists, each organization is looking to the future, trying to plan for changes in the funding landscape and whatever limitations may still be in place months, if not years, down the road.

“One of the things we’ll have to look at is whether we’ll ever be able to be as physically close as we were in the studio,” Brodersen says. “Most of our artists are in high-risk, vulnerable groups. Even when we do come back we’ll have to think about how we do things.”

Future changes may borrow from current approaches. “There may be artists who really prefer working remotely or having more one-on-one interactions,” Johnson says. “We’ll have more ways to offer choices when all this is over.”

Ultimately, facing similar challenges has brought all three organizations even closer. “During this time, the collaborative conversation between Creative Growth and Creativity Explored has been incredibly important,” Eicher says. “We find ourselves talking with each other almost every day, about the particularities of working online, working off-site and shifting our business models. It helps to have those problems in common.”

As artists and their audiences remain sequestered in their homes, Brodersen is especially cognizant that a lack of visibility may lead to a lack of awareness of the issues facing her organization’s artists. “Be aware that people with disabilities need our support,” she emphasizes. “These artists are among the best artists in the world and incredibly important members of our community.”

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