Artists U teaches artists how to make a life

The hardest thing about making a life as an artist is actually making a life as an artist. That’s where Artists U comes in.

Andrew Simonet is a choreographer and a writer who directed the Headlong Dance Theater in Philadelphia for 20 years, from 1993-2013. He now works independently as an artist. “Parts are very similar – fundraising, building partnerships,” he says. “It’s also very new. This is a new sector for me.”

Simonet started Artists U in 2006 to address what he saw as a real need within the artist community to educate artists on how to make a life, and not just a living, with their art. “In my community I’m struck by how challenging it is for artists to sustain themselves,” Simonet says. “Initially, Artists U was focused on performing artists because that was my world. I felt like there were things we could do individually and as a community [to have more of a] conversation on sustainability. Now we work with all artists.”

He attended an early professional development workshop from the Creative Capital Foundation where he says he was “blown away” by “how wrong artists are in their vision of the world.” He became a Creative Capital artist leader after that and traveled the country doing intensive weekend workshops. He wanted to see something like that in his own city, and so Artists U was formed.

“I went to so many [professional development workshops for artists] when I started out and so much of it was useless,” Simonet says. Workshops were often run by arts professionals, not artists, who didn’t understand or address the real struggles that artists face.

Artists U consists of artist-led professional development workshops and one-on-one planning sessions that are open to all artists. The intensive two-day workshops look at strategic planning, artist statements, and time and money management, while the one-on-one planning sessions with artist facilitators are available for any questions and issues artists might have to turn their “challenges and dreams into to-do lists.”

“Our workshops are really good. They’re targeted, they’re generous, they’re all artist-run. We’re all artists. We can’t devote ourselves to [Artists U] full-time because we’re working artists, and that’s the point,” Simonet says. “Fundamentally they’re really about empowerment. No one’s going to save you as an artist. You have to change.”

The workshops teach artists how to build a life as an artist. “A lot of the challenges artists have is the balance of time between life and work,” Simonet says. “There is an overemphasis [in other programs] on the ‘making a living’ part. Financial issues are real and need to be addressed, but most of the artists talk about time. Part of building a life as an artist is getting past the point of ‘everything will be fine if I can just make a living.’ If you’re totally career-driven you can still be exhausted and not doing the work you’re passionate about. Money is overemphasized in artists’ minds and in professional development. There are more complicated things than money.”

Simonet also tries to break artists of the negative association often attached to having a “day job.” “Day jobs are great!” he exclaims. “If you have a day job, you are still a full-time artist.”

The Artists U concept has since expanded to other cities, launching Baltimore from the ground up and South Carolina in partnership with the South Carolina Arts Commission. Artists U trains artist facilitators in these cities and empowers them to do this leadership work in their own communities.

The best is, all of the Artists U resources are free and available to all artists.

In addition to founding and directing Artists U, Simonet has also released a book called Making Your Life as an Artist, a downloadable book that covers everything he has learned about this world. “I want to try to reach people,” he says. “Relatively speaking, I’m not going to get in front of many artists in my life. This is something digital and downloadable to get out there.”

And, like everything else he does through Artists U, it’s absolutely free.