art workshop
Art Business

Is It Worth It? Leading an Art Workshop

In a new monthly column for Artrepreneur, art curator and critic Audra Lambert answers the most frequent questions she receives from independent artists.

The excitement has kicked in: Your proposal for a space has been accepted. You’re preparing everything to exhibit with your dream organization or gallery. As you’re running around finalizing artworks for the exhibition, the email arrives: As part of the exhibit you’ll be expected to lead an art workshop for the general public. Do you feel prepared and empowered to lead a diverse public to engage with your work? What will be expected of you in terms of programming? Will your CV be scrutinized in advance of the art workshop, and will the success of your programs impact your work with the gallery or exhibition space?

Artists are increasingly expected to adapt and fill a wider range of roles in exhibition-making in order to build awareness around exhibitions. One of these roles is often construed as a need to educate diverse publics about how to engage with an artist’s works or provide opportunities to experience aspects of their artistic practice. For example, artists who work with printmaking processes may be expected to lead an event where visitors can print their own artwork, while mixed media artists may provide an overview of their practice with a session introducing this process with various materials.

Despite your particular practice, odds are you’ll be leading an art workshop as part of your exhibition schedule at some point in your career. With ample preparation and a positive mindset, you can feel empowered to present a compelling event for exhibition guests. Below, we offer advice from experienced arts educators to help you conceive and present effective programming, despite your level of expertise and exposure in this field.

art workshop
It’s important to set goals for your art workshop – what should your attendees expect to learn from you?

Draw Strength, Leave Room for Discussion in an Art Workshop

As you begin conceptualizing your art workshop themes and logistics, take confidence in pulling from your personal skill set and experiences. Have you participated in artist residencies that required interacting with the general public about your work? Was there an art workshop requirement? By drawing from your own experiences on what has and hasn’t worked in past situations, you’ll have a framework from which to rely on as you plan for the next event.

While pulling from your own experiences is a crucial part of creating a memorable interactive experience, it should be noted that if the event doesn’t leave room for dialogue, then it misses part of the fun and excludes a sense of exchange present in the best workshops.

Artist and art educator Adam Zucker, founder of Artfully Learning, notes that the ultimate aim of any art workshop should be to create ample avenues for engaging broad publics. “Creative workshops should be engaging and have complex objectives and outcomes in mind during the planning phase,” Zucker notes. “However, they will ultimately need to be simplified in a way that anyone coming into the event can feel confident and good about participating.” By simplifying what you’re communicating to audiences while highlighting key points and skill-building directions, your program will be more effective and have lasting impact.

Another crucial aspect of building an art workshop with impact is to widen the discussion to be more inclusive of various viewpoints. Zucker notes that successful workshops incorporate multiple viewpoints to be more meaningful to a wider public. “Creative workshops should take into account diversity and the idea that everyone learns and relates to information differently… topics should cover issues that are wide-reaching and incorporate examples from multiple communities. Participants should be encouraged to share their own cultural experiences and prior learning to ensure their unique contribution to the workshop,” he says. By opening up the discussion to a wider group of participants, you’ll be creating more links to your work for a diverse audience and hopefully learn more about how others engage with your work in the process.

Prepare, Ask, Review

The best guarantee of a successful art workshop comes as a result of thorough preparation. Run test workshops with friends who have more experience with arts education to gain their perspective on how the experience can be improved. Watch recorded workshops by artists you admire online. Find what style of presenting topics and leading exercises works with your personality through trial and error. By preparing in advance and rehearsing the final event, you’ll have the confidence to keep your art workshop running when something goes awry. In order to build confidence among workshop participants, you’ll need to feel fully aware of what’s happening during the experience and in control of the situation while able to respond to situations as they arise.

One way to prepare? Create a checklist for the day-of. Creativity thought leader and educator Scott Berkun notes that a key way to be prepared is to have a list and check it twice. “Make notes [as you prepare] on all the equipment you’ll need to bring. Build a checklist [of all these items] and have it with you, along with the objects, on the day of [the event].”

By having organized materials at hand, and knowing how they will be implemented as the art workshop unfolds, you’ll be creating a seamless experience for participants.

As the workshop unfolds, ask participants what they are understanding through these experiences. Have ideas in place to tailor activities to those who have more exposure to arts-making or are not quite grasping the concepts. Circulate throughout the room to supervise activities one-on-one with everyone involved in the activity. By asking questions and keeping track of general trends in responses, you’ll be better prepared for creating your next event or activity.

Once the activity is complete, review the principles raised in the exercise. Inquire into how participants feel they’ve learned more about the specifics of the workshop, and/or how they feel they better understand your practice and artistic process. By having a clear beginning, middle and end of the art workshop, those who participate will feel as though they’ve taken part in a full experience. They will understand that they’ve had a chance to learn from a practicing artist, and hopefully feel more prepared to engage in art viewing and art-making.

art workshop
Consider what your audience is most interested in learning and determine the best possible course for offering that instruction.

Have Goals and Analyze Their Success

It’s best to go into a new experience with goals and expectations in place so you can measure against existing benchmarks when you receive feedback from art workshop participants. By understanding what you want to communicate through exhibition programming, and asking questions after to gauge how well this was communicated, you’ll be better prepared and signal your enthusiasm to engage. It may even be worth it to create a brief questionnaire for workshop participants to complete at the conclusion of the event. This will help all questions go answered, in the event that certain topics get overlooked in one-to-one discussions with those engaging in art-making activities.

Sit down with a trusted mentor or artist peer who has led workshops previously after the activity to review. By analyzing what has worked, or by hearing feedback from others regarding challenges encountered, the pieces will better fall into place for future iterations. Ultimately, while each workshop will be tailored toward the exhibition that it accompanies, by creating a tried and true method of engaging audiences artists will be better prepared to tie these activities back to their own practice. Ideally audiences learning new artistic skills will be empowered by the knowledge that the artist teaching these fact that the artist leading these activities engages in these same techniques.

Finally, focus on fun and engaging methods! By finding ways to make visitors excited about working on art projects, you’ll be creating new avenues for visitors to experience art with a positive mindset. Zucker notes the importance of personal attention in creating an engaging art workshop. “Artmaking is very personal so it is important to make everyone feel welcome and to give them a platform to express themselves.”

About the author

Audra Lambert

Audra Lambert is a curator, arts marketing consultant and editor.

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