Creativity Explored

Established 1983, San Francisco

Creativity Explored is one of three significant programs in the Bay Area, all of which were founded by Florence Ludins-Katz and Elias Katz in the late 70s and early 80s. Each of the three (Creativity Explored, NIAD, and Creative Growth) are separate, independent organizations whose directions of development have diverged under different leadership.

Creativity Explored, located in the Mission District of San Francisco, is the second of the three (founded in 1983), and has been operating under the leadership of Executive Director Amy Taub since 1999.

The heart of this program is an open studio where artists work as freely as possible with the support of a professional artist staff. The basic Progressive Art studio concept was invented by these pioneer Bay Area programs and it’s for which they’re still viewed as an authority. Creativity Explored proved to be the most interested in sharing information to foster a greater understanding of the dynamic potential of this model for support. Consequently, they’re the largest of the three, not only in terms of number of clients, but also in the scope of services provided.

The studio implements a thoughtful structure, which outwardly seems complicated, but works well. There are around 10 teachers, each directing a work area comprised of a few tables, supplies, etc. The artists are on a rotation schedule, but how often they move and which teacher they work with is carefully decided by the studio manager (depending on who works well together and what they’re working on). As a general rule, specific projects don’t move to another work area; the teachers hold onto any ongoing projects, which will be resumed upon the artist’s return. This system allows each artist to work with several teachers without inhibiting their ability to develop cohesive bodies of work (this sometimes becomes a problem in other studios that require artists to rotate). The team of teachers is comprised of experienced fine artists with active studio practices, but with a diverse range of backgrounds: performance, industrial design, conceptual art, dance, etc. Many have been working at Creativity Explored for 10-20 years or more.

Creativity Explored has a well-developed tier system for categorizing artists, which consists of three tiers: Beginning, Emerging and Established. There are specific guidelines governing this system; each artist starts as a Beginner and may advance to Emerging once they have achieved $2000 in sales within a 2-year period. Emerging artists work with higher quality materials and receive more advanced documentation/promotion services. The highest tier of Established artist is an impressive and ambitious ideal that still exists only in concept, as thus far no artist has achieved it. An Established artist is essentially supported to become self-employed, pursuing an independent and robust fine art practice including a business license, portfolio, gallery representation, and so on.

CE invests a great deal in the marketing and promotion of their artists’ works, including the employment of a dedicated Preparator, Gallery Manager, and Marketing & Business Development Director (whose role is comparable to that of a fine art consultant). They exhibit works in their own gallery space and strive to find exhibition opportunities for their artists outside the studio, including placement in commercial spaces and working with designers to secure image licensing opportunities. CE strives to avoid letting commercial opportunities compromise the works’ integrity by maintaining certain detailed standards that have the strange effect of institutionalizing arbitrary fine art tendencies (ie. as a rule, accepting commission parameters for the dimensions of the work, but not accepting parameters for color palette).

Amy Taub cautions against any new or small program to attempt licensing; selling imagery for product use is an exciting idea with a lot of potential, but legally it’s complicated and perilous. CE’s licensing program is surely the most sophisticated of any Progressive Art Studio.  This is the result of investing a lot of time, money, and legal risk, in addition to fortunate partnerships with designers (such as Crate and Barrel). Despite this, though, it feels like CE is hesitant to definitively call the endeavor worthwhile.

CE has a storefront gallery on 16th Street, adjacent to the studio space. On average they present seven exhibitions a year, primarily in the form of themed shows organized by staff members. Occasionally a show will be curated by the artists. The exhibition programming is developing, which includes moving toward incorporating more solo shows. The introduction of critique is also a goal for Taub; she wants criticism (which she considers to be an important aspect of the process) to be part of the artists’ studio practice and believes that the ability to introduce and speak about their work is important. In the interest of this, the program has begun having artist presentations at schools; eventually they hope to host regular artist talks at the gallery. Criticism has been an emphasis in our experiences as both art facilitators and practicing artists, so we greatly appreciate this intention.

Creativity Explored is an excellent and experienced Progressive Art Studio. Like all three of the Katz’s big Bay Area programs, they’re qualified to be leaders in this field, but Creativity Explored seems to take this role the most seriously. This sense of leadership and responsibility manifests itself in their openness and willingness to share ideas and information; CE was the only of the three programs where we were able to speak directly to the Executive Director, Amy Taub, who was richly informative, insightful, and passionate about her role.

Beyond this, this leadership informs the direction in which they strive to advance and expand. CE works with a forward thinking, experimental sensibility, hoping to lead not only by example, but also by becoming the program of the future.

Regarding the future and development of the program, Taub’s focus seems to respond to the  impending implementation of new regulations driven by Employment First.  She states quite plainly that there’s no current need to increase the program size or change it significantly. Taub describes Employment First, though, with a great deal of concern. From her perspective, it’s a large and powerful movement not compelled by the needs of the relatively small portion of the population involved in art programs. To have any future at all, CE must adapt to the system that Employment First envisions, which is one without any day programs. Development of CE’s sophisticated tier system is one approach to this challenge, but Taub is currently working to devise an approach even further outside the box - maybe even one that in the long term doesn’t include a studio.

An important insight from our visit to CE came from a few of the teaching staff regarding their sometimes controversial role - whether the artists are outsiders, self-taught, or comparable to students is actually irrelevant and it doesn't matter whether a staff person considers themselves to be a facilitator or teacher. The most important quality is that they take art-making seriously and respect their clients as artists. There seems to have been a broadly embraced shift in thinking over the past several years that the work made in these studios isn’t really outsider art and the staff aren’t just facilitating. The distinction between one way of thinking and the other is described by staff in abstract, philosophical terms; the approach and practice of someone who has 30 years of experience as a staff person are clearly subject to no ideology. Whatever function they ultimately serve (teacher, mentor, assistant, or collaborator) is the natural result of a mutual respect between between peers.