For years, artist Vincent Jackson had a weekday routine: arrive at Creativity Explored’s San Francisco studio at 8 a.m., get some tea, then grab two bagels from a nearby shop before settling in to make art for the next five hours. He was a regular at the Friday afternoon dance parties and artist receptions too.
“Creativity Explored has been like an art college to me,” says Jackson, who has exhibited internationally and was introduced to the nonprofit in 1984, a year after its founding by the late couple Florence Ludins-Katz and Elias Katz to serve artists with disabilities. “It has been a place where I can express myself any kind of way I want to.”
With the studio shuttered for nearly a year now, Jackson has been practicing art in his bedroom, chatting by phone with teachers and participating in a Zoom group drawing class. “I’m not going to sit at home and twiddle my thumbs,” he says, “but I’ll be glad when this is over and we can get back.”
Since the COVID-19 crisis, Creativity Explored and its sister organizations, Creative Growth in Oakland and Nurturing Independence Through Artistic Development (NIAD) in Richmond — the Katzes started all three — have striven to stay connected to their combined 350 artists. From the start, the trio asked artists what they want and then determined how best to oblige. Staff members frequently check in with artists, assemble and drop off at-home art kits, and pick up completed works.
But being such hands-on institutions, none were particularly digitally savvy. So the biggest shift has entailed quickly ramping up their tech skills to develop online programming and help artists adjust to a remote world. “That’s been one of the most incredible and surprising things — to see how people were motivated and excited about using digital tools when they knew it was a way to further our relationships,” says Linda Johnson, executive director of Creativity Explored, which now conducts 20-plus Zoom classes, some of which, like meditation and silent drawing, are new to the curriculum. Additionally, a website redesign has yielded a more robust online store. (Creativity Explored, Creative Growth and NIAD split sales 50-50 with artists, whose works can command several hundred dollars.)
Prior to the pandemic, art sales at Creative Growth were its largest revenue source, primarily done in person at its gallery, partner galleries and art fairs, says Executive Director Elizabeth Brodersen. When the facility closed, the gallery team launched online viewing rooms — Ron Veasey’s work is currently showcased — and e-commerce. A recently released chapbook features poems collectively composed by Creative Growth artists during virtual and in-person workshops.
A week after the shelter-in-place mandate was issued in March 2020, NIAD introduced a virtual studio, one hour daily. Gradually more online sessions, such as dance, painting and sculpture, have been added. NIAD now offers services six hours daily, engaging with about 40 artists every day — matching its pre-pandemic on-site numbers, says Executive Director Amanda Eicher. “The switch to doing things digitally was incredibly hard,” she says. “But it gave us this moment to step back and chart new territories for ourselves.”
Creativity Explored, Creativity Growth and NIAD received Paycheck Protection Program aid, allowing them to retain most employees. Financial support from patrons has also been a godsend. According to Eicher, during the pandemic, donations to NIAD have jumped 40 percent and online art sales are up 20 percent. The organization is currently preparing for Win Win 9, the ninth iteration of its annual fundraiser that will take place virtually on Saturday, March 6.
Creativity Explored is gearing up for a big virtual benefit as well. Its annual gala, Art Changes Lives, which was canceled last year, is slated for April 23. And artists — including Jackson — are already conjuring pieces for a fashion show and exhibition opening in September (fingers crossed) at the Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco.
Although Creativity Growth’s fundraising fashion show, Beyond Trend, is a no-go for a second consecutive year, Brodersen is hopeful it will return in 2022. In the meantime, an online fundraiser will take place this spring.
As Brodersen, Eicher and Johnson plot the future, they have been successful advocating for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs), who are now being prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccines. “The mortality rate is much higher for folks with IDDs,” says Brodersen. “The vaccine will be essential to creating an environment where it’s safe for our artists to come back to the studio.”
All three leaders are confident that they will emerge from the pandemic even stronger. Case in point: By offering remote along with in-person sessions — once the latter are permitted again — they can extend their reach. “At the heart of what we do is inclusion,” says Johnson. “How can we have more impact? We want to give people more options about how they live their life and are a part of our creative community.”