Artists in many ways wield superpowers, maintains Andrew Simonet. He just wishes more of them felt empowered to use those powers outside the studio.
“They have the ability to manifest something out of nothing,” he said. “To imagine something that doesn’t exist … that’s a complicated skillset.”
And yet, many artists struggle to make ends meet through their endeavors. He saw it firsthand during his 20-year tenure with Philadpelphia’s Headlong Dance Theater.
“I was struck by how there were so many artists around me who I thought were brilliant, and they were struggling so hard — even after accomplishing a lot,” he reflected. “People came to my company because we sort of had our stuff together enough to do a grant or a budget, and people would come and say, ‘How do you do this?’”
Both an artist and entrepreneur himself — he founded Headlong in 1993 — Simonet saw an opportunity.
“I wanted to build a really different conversation: how do we come together as artists and change the way we’re having that conversation [about money]?” he said. “I don’t think you can do it by yourself; the way we come up is not individually; it’s collectively.”
So in 2006, he founded Artists U, a business incubator with curricula designed specifically for creatives. The hope was to fill in some of the blanks that traditional art school programs didn’t cover.
“I have a degree in dance; I didn’t have one conversation about how we were going to live as artists,” he said. “My professors were working professionals — they knew about this stuff — but there was no context for having that conversation.”
He penned a book and corresponding workbook, both titled “Making Your Life as an Artist,” and began developing workshops and webinars.
Aspen-based artist Lara Whitley found one of Simonet’s webinars incredibly useful to her own career. When she shared her experience with Staci Dickerson of Carbondale Arts, Dickerson, too, was inspired.
“One of the missions of Carbondale Arts is to be supportive to artists and help them develop better strategies and tools to help them become successful artists,” Dickerson said, adding that the organization regularly hosts workshops that focus on developing skill sets beyond art itself.
When Whitley learned that Simonet had family in the area — his sister and brother-in-law and their two children live in Missouri Heights — she and Dickerson began brainstorming ways to coordinate a family visit and Carbondale Arts presentation.
“We started in the fall, so we’ve been working on it for awhile,” Dickerson said.
Everything came to fruition just in time for summer. Carbondale Arts and Coventure co-hosted Artists U Workshop: Building a Sustainable Life as an Artist June 21 and 22, in which 20 artists (mostly from Carbondale, but a few from Denver and Frisco) partook. And as the name implies, Simonet built a longer-term plan to ensure sustainable empowerment from his students.
“I’m still sort of processing it all, but highlights were his style and delivery,” Dickerson said the following week. “I think one of the things that’s going to be really important is the followup of this is to create working groups. We got a workbook, and we will work through with his support. Over the next five months, we will be meeting once a month and working to really refine and develop the strategies of being sustainable artists.”
That workbook is available for free at tinyurl.com/SustainableLifeWorkbook, Simonet mentioned.
“What we try to do is put tools in artists hands that they can use, but also that they can share. We really encourage people, if it’s useful, pass it on,” he said.
The workbook — and the Carbondale workshop — puts a strong emphasis on planning, starting early on that “a concise, doable plan is the single most important tool for building a sustainable life.”
“There’s a really beautiful and supportive network of artists in the Valley,” Simonet said. “That’s the most sustainable thing for artists: that support but also that little push, that kick in the butt. An embrace but also pushing each other forward is really magical, and I felt that in the room.”
Dickerson is hopeful that the upcoming monthly meetings will continue to foster that energy — and further to grow an artist network.
“One of his goals and missions in setting this up is to create artist leaders, so maybe that will be one of the outcomes of this, is this working group will go on and be able to be supportive of each other and maybe mentoring or whatever it is that will come from that,” she said.
And hopefully, too, those leaders can push their community to expand its scope, Simonet noted.
“The success of other artists is good for you,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of artists who are poised to get their work beyond the local community but are a little bit stuck in terms of how.”