Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Rebecca Potts of Teaching Artist Podcast

Rebecca Potts is the host of Teaching Artist Podcast, and co-coordinator of Play + Inspire Gallery and the Art Educators Lounge

As an artist, podcast host and curator, it seems you are quite dedicated to a life of creative expression. What are your first memories of feeling passionately towards the arts?

I spent my childhood lost in books and drawings. I read voraciously and wrote and drew stories of imaginary worlds. The dragons of Pern, wonders of Narnia, and a Wrinkle in Time filled my head. It was an escape. I remember saying I wanted to be an author/illustrator sometime in elementary school. Growing up in Montana in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, I didn’t often see art except in books (this was pre-internet!), so I think books were my only career idea related to the arts. Somewhere along the way, my interest in writing waned and I just kept making art. In high school, I had the incredible opportunity to spend a summer at Harvard studying photography and expanding my world in a much bigger city than I’d ever known. I came home eager to continue and my amazing high school art teacher loaned me an enlarger that I used to set up a darkroom in my basement bathroom.

When you did you first gain an interest in the relationship between one’s own creative expression and the teaching of arts to younger generations, and how did the idea to create a podcast on the subject come about?

My teaching career has been a bit of a winding road. I’ve taught off and on since college in settings ranging from 1-day workshops for adults to preschool classes. My family is full of teachers, so it always felt natural, but I pushed against it. As an idealistic 22-year-old, I worked as a community organizer through Americorps, focused on water quality issues. Then I joined the founding staff of a small school during the height of NYC’s “small school movement” in the early 2000’s. Being in NYC was incredible for the accessibility of contemporary art, but most of my time was devoted to working in an administrative role at the school, unrelated to art. I kept making art in my spare time and realized that I wanted to make art my full-time career.

I didn’t see being solely an artist as feasible financially, but kept avoiding the idea of becoming a K-12 art teacher. Instead, I got an MFA with the intention of becoming a professor. Even then, I saw the disparity in respect within the art world between professors and teachers. This disparity is one of the catalysts for starting Teaching Artist podcast… but I’ll come back to that.

During grad school, I was a teaching assistant and working alongside professors I began to realize how difficult it would be to juggle multiple part-time adjunct teaching gigs with art-making… or to even get a university-level teaching gig in a city like NYC or LA (my location options are limited based on my husband’s career).

After grad school, I managed art education programs for the Bronx River Art Center and then for the Brooklyn Arts Council, while teaching a few classes. I discovered that I actually really enjoyed being in the classroom with kids rather than always behind a desk. While I love working with teaching artists, helping develop curricula and professional development workshops, learning the ins and outs of program management, and nerding out over spreadsheets, I also love teaching.

In 2014, my husband got a job offer in Prague, so we moved across the Atlantic. I started teaching small group and private lessons, but a difficult pregnancy put a halt to my teaching. Motherhood was all-consuming. When we returned to the U.S. in 2017, my daughter was almost 2 and I eased my way back into teaching. I’ve been teaching at the elementary level since then while also restarting my studio practice. Juggling both of those along with motherhood, I found inspiration in podcasts like Artist/Mother Podcast, I Like Your Work, Everyday Art Room, and Blocks, Paper, Scissors. I listened to so many art podcasts and art education podcasts, but didn’t see the two coming together.

Teaching Artist podcast began with the idea of highlighting artists like me who are trying to maintain both careers (artist and teacher) with equal passion. Seeing a lack of space in the art world for artists who teach kids, I wanted to raise fellow teaching artists up, to say “you can be a professional artist and a dedicated teacher!” I wanted to make space for talking about our art practices and our teaching practices as interconnected yet sometimes competing pursuits.

Are there specific reasons in which you find youth arts education to be especially important in today’s world?

At the risk of sounding trite, the arts are essential to developing so many vital skills for living in this world. Art is an incredible connector and makes stories come alive. Through arts education, students practice thinking critically and solving creative problems. They experiment with forms of communication and find ways to express ideas, emotions, and experiences. They collaborate with peers and learn to accept and unpack criticism. They dig into media and imagery, learning to recognize bias and see the barrage of visual stimuli with a critical lens. There are just so many absolutely necessary skills that are best taught through the arts, regardless of whether a student plans or desires a career in the arts.

As we increasingly see racism rear its ugly head and step further out of the shadows here in the U.S., but also around the world, the importance of explicitly teaching tolerance* is clear. The arts are uniquely positioned to change deeply held beliefs and sway opinions through the emotional responses art can provoke. In 1990, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop coined the phrase, “Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Glass Doors” in an essay about literature in education*. This idea that books can provide windows into unknown worlds, mirrors reflecting our own experiences back at us, and doors allowing us to step through and experience new worlds applies vividly to art. Several of the Teaching Artist podcast episodes touch on this, but I especially loved how Adjoa Burrowes talked about telling stories and allowing each person, each artist, each student to tell their own story. She said “It’s the stories that make people human… the whole thing about racism is that it dehumanizes. It makes you less than a person… you’re just this stereotype.” By thoughtfully teaching contemporary artworks and artists as individuals with their own unique stories to tell, we can break down stereotypes.

I also see the arts as a means of expression and release not found elsewhere in education. For me, art has always provided a sort of therapy, a way to let out difficult emotions or revel in joy. Our students need those experiences to be a part of their school days.

* “Tolerance is surely an imperfect term, yet the English language offers no single word that embraces the broad range of skills we need to live together peacefully.” https://www.tolerance.org/about

* Here’s a short video of Dr. Bishop talking about windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_AAu58SNSyc&feature=youtu.be&ab_channel=ReadingRockets

And what I could find of her essay online: https://scenicregional.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Mirrors-Windows-and-Sliding-Glass-Doors.pdf

Do you find that working with other artists has opened up opportunities for your own creative expression?

Definitely! I am so inspired by other artists – whether they’re the young artists I teach, peers I work with, mentors, or anything in between. I have also learned so much from other artists about the curation process and the business side of art. I say it a lot, but in every podcast interview, I really am excited to hear about each artist’s journey. Talking about art, even when I’m not talking about my own art-making, feeds my brain and helps ideas percolate.

What do you find most rewarding about the curation process?

There are so many things I enjoy about curation! I love getting to discover artists I didn’t know through open calls or recommendations. I also learn so much in arranging a show and considering relationships between artworks. Stretching that semi-analytical creative muscle feels good and is helpful in my own art practice as well. The organizational aspects also scratch an itch for me – I’m all about the spreadsheets! I think the most rewarding aspect is getting to chat with artists and sharing work I love with the world. It’s so exciting to hear or see instances when my curation lifts up an artist and brings them additional opportunities.

What are some of the challenges that you face?

My biggest challenge right now is time. I’m teaching part time, working in my studio as an artist with deadlines for shows, hosting and running the podcast, managing the online gallery (with Maria Coit), co-facilitating the Art Educator’s Lounge as a supportive group for teaching artists (with Victoria Fry), and dreaming up additional programming. I used to freelance as a web designer, but have stopped that work aside from designing and coding for my own sites. I’m also a mom, helping my kindergartener with online school. I’m thankful for a supportive partner through this pandemic. I recently submitted a few grant proposals to hopefully allow me to hire more help with some of these projects.

Another challenge is funding and trying to find the balance of paid vs. free programming. I struggle with theoretically being opposed to charging fees for open calls, but also realizing that fees are a good way to support a project. As Victoria mentioned in her interview, there are a lot of costs to running an online platform, even though there are not the costs of maintaining a brick & mortar space. I do most things myself to keep costs low, but that model is unsustainable for the programs and for me personally. I’m now working on setting up systems to automate some tasks and help me delegate others. My dream would be to fund programs primarily through grants and sponsors in order to keep fees for artists as low as possible or even free. As an artist, I get frustrated with platforms that claim to support artists, yet derive the bulk of their funding from artists without seeking outside support, so a major goal is to secure support that helps me offer free or low-cost opportunities for artists.

Are there certain qualities that you look for in artists in deciding whether they will be pleasurable to work with? And on the contrary, any areas for improvement artists should be aware of?

Artists who show genuine interest in the content and programs I’ve been offering and who help amplify my work by sharing or submitting reviews get my attention. I also am so appreciative of timely and thorough responses to requests for info. As a parent and teacher juggling a lot right now, I am very understanding and flexible with timelines, but it does help me when I can gather all the info/photos/etc that I need ahead of time.

For the podcast, I’m interested in sharing the stories and experiences of a wide range of teaching artists in terms of careers – from teachers just carving out time for art to established artists with impressive CVs. I seek out teaching artists with inspiring stories, unique perspectives, and experiences that differ from my own. I try to make space to share the stories of everyone who expresses interest, but am needing to be more selective with interviews as this project grows.

For the gallery, I’m looking for artwork that speaks of current issues with a clear and compelling voice. We envision the gallery as a space for sharing work with teachers and young students and continue to create lesson plans and prompts for each exhibition, so often thematic connections and considerations are important.

Personally, I am drawn to work where the concept, materials, and processes all work hand in hand. I love abstraction and bright colors and texture!

Do you have any specific do’s and don’ts for artists looking to submit their work to you?

My number one tip is to follow all instructions. I know it can be frustrating to rename images, edit bio’s and statements for word count, and carefully read instructions for every different open call… but it is important! I shared a video of tips for submitting work, so there are more do’s and don’ts in there. A few more that stand out to me are:

· Submit as many images as the submission allows, while keeping them cohesive.

· Reach out via email if you’re having technical difficulties or have any questions. Be sure to do so with respect and kindness and have some patience as it may take a few days to reply (curators are real people, often juggling a lot of work!).

· Consider whether the theme of the open call is appropriate for your work. Look into the curator and consider how they might respond to your work. Do your research before submitting and select work that has the highest chance of success. Here’s a question I ask myself as an artist: “Which of my pieces would look best in this space and best fit this theme?” (whether the “space” is a publication, website, or physical gallery).

Do you have future plans for Teaching Artist Podcast, as well as other curated projects, beyond what you are doing today?

Yes! I’m continuing to run the podcast while seeking additional ways to make it sustainable – whether that is through sponsorships, grants, or listener support. I am also always thinking about additional ways to support artists who teach young people. Victoria and I are rolling out additional programming for the Art Educator’s Lounge and I can’t wait to share more about that! Play + Inspire Gallery is also continuing to evolve. We’re still very young with our first juried exhibition opening January 22nd. We have a few exciting ideas for utilizing our online space to expand the amount and type of work we can share, which are in the early stages so I can’t yet share more, but keep an eye out.





Monday, January 4, 2021

Victoria J. Fry of Visionary Art Collective

Victoria J. Fry is an artist, educator and founder of Visionary Art Collective, an online gallery and arts education platform.

You are an arts coordinator, artist, and arts educator. Has there ever been a time in which you felt doubtful about a stable career in the arts?

I knew from an early age that I was going to pursue a career in the arts. Perhaps it was the naivety that came with being young, but I actually never doubted having a stable career. I did, however, have moments of hesitation before graduating college as a Fine Arts major, and realized that it can be difficult to support yourself as a painter. I decided to delve into art education, which has provided me with stability in terms of income and job security. After teaching for almost 8 years, I began to dream of a platform that celebrated both art and education, which ultimately led me to create Visionary Art Collective.

Were there any specific events that led to your decision to support artists by opening Visionary Art Collective in 2020?

When COVID hit, like many other artists and educators, I felt really disconnected from my community. I had already been dreaming of an online platform that highlighted work by contemporary artists and educators, and finally put these ideas into action in 2020. At the end of the day, I was craving a sense of community, and my desire to connect with fellow artists and educators was the driving force behind this platform.

You run a virtual gallery rather than a physical one. How does this effect the way the exhibitions are received and how have your audience and artists responded to this type of platform?

When many galleries closed their doors due to the pandemic, I began to see online exhibition spaces popping up. I thought this was such a wonderful and creative way to continue to showcase work despite the current circumstances. I decided that each year Visionary Art Collective would present multiple exhibits on our platform, and in doing so, provide artists with the opportunity to share their work. We’ve received really positive responses and great support from our community.

How do you wish to create a shift in the way art education is being taught?

Traditional arts education has often excluded BIPOC artists, as well as women artists. I feel that as educators, we have a responsibility to teach about artists who have historically been overlooked. It’s vital that we teach about diverse artists while also introducing our students to artists they actually can relate to. There needs to be representation in the arts for our students. My goal is for my teenage girls to see a powerful woman painter and think, “I can be like her.” Its powerful and inspiring to teach students about contemporary artists - artists who are creating art in response to issues we collectively face today.

There seem to be mixed feelings expressed by artists about the rise of submission fees required by online galleries. What are your feelings on this and how do you feel this new format is effecting the art world?

When you run a business, whether its physical or online, there are a plethora of out-of-pocket expenses, including: paying guest curators to review work, taking care of legal fees to trademark and copyright material, hiring an SEO team to increase visibility, paying a third party to manage and organize submissions, investing in monthly advertising, and hiring graphic designers or web developers - just to name a few. It is also quite common to hire business coaches and advisors, especially when starting out, to assist with building new platforms. These are just a handful of the costs associated with running an online business. For most businesses, a good portion of the submissions fees assist with covering these costs. I feel that online art platforms are going to continue to rise, because although there are still monthly expenses, it is more cost effective than running brick and mortar store.

What do you find most rewarding about the curation process?

For me, it’s incredibly rewarding to showcase work by new and emerging artists. It’s deeply fulfilling to provide artists with opportunities that increase their visibility in the art world. I absolutely love viewing art - it is so inspiring to me. Every time I’m exposed to new work, it motivates me as an artist to get back into the studio and create. There’s also a magical feeling when an exhibit comes together and the work just flows organically.

What are some of the challenges that you face?

My biggest challenge has been balancing my work as an artist, educator, and now founder of Visionary Art Collective. It really comes down to time, and making sure I can manage my time well enough so that I have energy to pour into all three aspects of my life.

Are there certain qualities that you look for in artists in deciding whether they will be pleasurable to work with? And on the contrary, any areas for improvement artists should be aware of?

I always appreciate when an artist is easy to communicate with, follows the submission guidelines, and is respectful in their communication. When I have positive interactions with artists, it definitely makes me want to work them again in the future.

Do you have any specific do’s and don’ts for artists looking to submit their work to you?

The only do’s I have are: please follow the submission guidelines! It’s really important and makes the review process much easier for us. I also don’t want artists to feel discouraged if they don’t make it into an exhibit right away. We receive a lot of submissions and always encourage artists to continue applying if they don’t make it in the first time.

Do you have future plans for Visionary Art Collective beyond what it is today?

We do! We’re currently working behind the scenes on a few surprises which I can’t reveal quite yet. But what I can say is that we are continuing to build up the education branch of our website to provide art educators with more resources. We are also teaming up with handful of amazing curators this year in 2021 to present new exhibits, which we’re super excited about!