The ART of Workforce Development

Article written by Fiona Bond, executive director of Creative Waco, published in the 2019 second quarter edition of Greater Waco Business magazine.


When you think of workforce development, the cultural arts may not pop into your mind immediately. However, there are many great examples of arts-based workforce development with far-reaching impact beyond the creative sector. For Creative Waco, there are two strands to this work.

The first, and perhaps most direct, is professional development and skills-based training that helps artists, performers and creative professionals carve out a successful career trajectory. We want our creatives NOT to be starving artists. We want to equip them to be savvy, successful entrepreneurs. In Waco, we are benefitting from the expertise of Luann Jennings, who has been developing expertise in this field for decades and has recently launched a Waco-specific curriculum of professional development for artists and creative professionals. Why is this important? Because successful creative entrepreneurs and a vibrant arts and cultural scene have been shown across the globe to be one of the essential ingredients for building a thriving, sustainable and locally distinctive economy that attracts a broader ecosystem of entrepreneurship.

The second strand is less obvious, but just as impactful. The arts are a fantastic training ground for creative (and fun!) problem solving for any field of work. Last year, Creative Waco launched ARTPrenticeship, an apprenticeship program for high school students through which they learn how to manage a creative project from concept to completion. Apprentices worked alongside professional artists to paint a stunning new mural (you can see the first one, “1000 Hopes for Waco,” at University Parks and Jackson). Apprentices learn the skills needed to become a successful “Creative Professional” in a real-world context. This includes skills such as:

  • Project management
  • Designing to a client brief
  • Managing a client relationship
  • Community consultation
  • Presenting and revising designs
  • Budgeting, financial management and cash flow (including calculation of materials needed)
  • Managing uncertainty and risk
  • Safety on a work site
  • Basic surveying knowledge
  • Legal basics (contracts and intellectual property)
  • Working as part of a creative team
  • Media communication

No matter what profession the students ultimately want to excel in, these highly transferable skills equip them for success and provide a visible reminder of the impact their work can have in the world.

LuAnn Jennings

LUANN JENNINGS, Professional Development

I developed an interest in business and entrepreneurship for artists while living in New York City. The artists whose careers moved forward were masters of two skills – being proactive and being entrepreneurial. As an arts entrepreneur myself, I had the opportunity to start several arts programs and businesses, learning through trial and error the “business” of the arts. One of the driving forces that brought my husband (jazz guitarist Chuck Jennings) and me to Waco in 2016 was the opportunity to help build a thriving local arts scene.

To better assist local creatives in owning and running successful creative businesses, The Work of Artists was developed by combining the most applicable aspects of several nationally-known training programs tailored toward Waco’s needs. Waco is ripe for entrepreneurism in the arts, so what artists here need most is to be able to cast a vision and learn how to move it forward. We don’t need what a city with a large number of mid-career artists would need. Many of our local artists are at early career stage, juggling families and other jobs; their challenge is to figure out how to juggle and prioritize.

The Work of Artists course guides creatives by narrowing down the mission of their business in three steps: (1) Build a Base, (2) Connect with the Community, and (3) Manage the Money. At the end of the first session, participants leave with a foundational business plan and an in-depth understanding of what they as creative professionals are selling and what makes their product unique. By the end of the third session, participants know how to manage money, keep the IRS happy and grow profit margins.

Stephanie Wheat-Johnson

STEFANIE WHEAT-JOHNSON, ARTPrenticeship Program Manager

While it may provide beauty for our city, the backbone of the ARTPrenticeship program is in its marriage of workforce training and the development of creative talent in our city. As such, it provides an environment full of opportunity and challenges that I’m thankful to say has proven stimulating for all parties involved. After an exciting pilot project last summer, our team has been pleased to mark the successes of the artists and young creatives we employed in our program. Providing a mixture of studio work, professional enrichment, and the hands-on hard labor of painting an outdoor mural gave everyone the chance to dig deep and grow. We’ve seen our apprentices from last year graduate with honors and go forward with confidence into their chosen fields and have had the great pleasure of watching the artists who taught for us continue to grow their businesses and deepen their craft.

Pairing high standards with the right people in a positive and nurturing environment produced more than a beautiful mural. By connecting our young people, hired from within Waco ISD, to challenges that we knew they were up to, they were able to find satisfaction in a success that was well-earned. Our teaching artists and assistants cultivate this atmosphere, and it was deeply satisfying to be able to provide each of our participants with feedback on their growth and abilities at the end of the summer. We’re looking forward to doing the same this year, with a special focus on connecting more closely with local organizations, businesses and community programs. Gaining skills in how to do great work while getting to know your home town on a deeper level has rewards that will only grow with time as these young creatives contribute to their community!

Fiona Bond

FIONA BOND, Executive Director, Creative Waco

The arts foster a kind of learning that can be applied to almost any workforce context, and several of our Waco arts organizations can offer workshops and retreats for businesses built around creative problem-solving. Do you need to build confident communication among your sales team? Try an improv theatre workshop. Do you need your quality control staff to spot issues more easily? Try a visual coaching session at an art exhibition.

The arts have “superpowers” when it comes to creative problem solving, understanding a complex issue, multivalent communication or team building. One of my favorite Texas examples is Austin Energy, who turned to dance when they wanted to build staff morale and trust among workers who often have to depend on one another in dangerous situations, and who wanted to cultivate public understanding and appreciation of their heroic work. They partnered with Forklift Danceworks to produce PowerUp, a unique dance using forklifts. Six thousand people attended the live performance and it was made into a PBS Documentary. We’d love to hear from Waco businesses curious about how to unleash the superpowers of the arts for their own workforce development.