We are a social enterprise that operates a large-scale public art studio run by teenagers and young adults interested in creative careers. Our apprentices are high school students who in their ordinary circumstances don’t have access to high quality design education and training. We connect with them and foster their creative aspirations while they gain professional and technical skills through our studio programs. Our methods are integrative and sequential; we often meet participants and their families in middle school and work together through young adulthood.

We were on a steep growth trajectory (and needing even more organizational capacity) when the first news about COVID-19 came through. For us, that was the week of March 9, 2020. Temporarily ensnared in bureaucratic negotiations with USPS over a space buildout related to Purple Line delays, we thought we had our hands full keeping up with a demanding cash flow and advocating through multiple outlets to resolve our larger issues. With our spare time, we decided our management team would tackle a project to examine our capacities as an anti-racist organization, and set ourselves on a course to grow and improve.

The first awful realization was that the temporary work slow down we conservatively expected to be six weeks was now permanent in the foreseeable future. We had already talked to the crew about a reduction in hours, so that work was done. Their courageous and gracious response is another story entirely.

Next we had a period of 24/7 monitoring of news and much wisdom sharing among digitally networked communities. I belong to several networks of nonprofits, creative leaders, and social movements who collectively always provide the critical guidance on how to stay mission-focused, resilient, critically-minded, and compassionate, and full of dark, roasty humor. The decisions for most of the arts sector were about canceling events. For us it was about closing the studio.

Our leadership is a three-person management team and we negotiate big decisions toward the best possible balance of outcomes. In this case, one thought we should close immediately and two thought some measure of in-studio operations could be possible. We worked it out with board input over 72 hours and temporarily stopped studio operations for 48 hours, which very quickly turned into indefinitely.

The studio produces large-scale public art in glass mosaic tile. Most of our 40-strong studio crew and apprentices have been with us two years or longer and are highly skilled in this technically-challenging art form. Our studio process is team-centered and all our work happens together in a studio designed for social inclusion, emotional development, and professional achievement.

The program team immediately problem-solved to identify work that could be moved online. Fortunately, we were piloting an embedded digital design studio so we had workflows and tasks already outlined that could accept new team members. At the time, we had been noticing that production demands were squeezing out time to meet professional development milestones, so we flipped that switch and moved all those outdated tasks to the first week of what has now become on online curriculum.

Our management strategies are informed by positive youth development, work-based learning, integrative and adaptive leadership, and socially progressive and inclusive values. The internal shorthand for our mission is ‘kids in the middle’ and that means that we make decisions based on the best interests of our crew (with their direct input) and often negotiate with all other stakeholders (clients, funders, families, neighbors, colleagues) to keep that value centered. From an executive level, the COVID-19 tasks were more of the same, but now rapid fire and existential in nature. Again, thankfully, we are all clear that the focus is the people, not the artwork or the formal organization.

The financial implication for us are serious and potentially crushing. We have lost access to all our current earned revenue streams, representing 65% of our operating budget. The funding community is moving quickly and in all the right ways to buffer the losses, but those resources are being pulled in many directions. Our next big challenges have to do with maintaining the crew at current work schedules and finding a way to run our apprentice intensive trainings online, and meeting obligations for three large commissions in a time of social distancing.

Luckily, design thinking prioritize iterative problem-solving as a regular practice in our studio. ‘Stretch and Adjust’ is by far the most used of our Eight Studio Habits. That’s what we’re doing and that’s exactly how we will persist. Our goal, always, is to do so in a way that lifts up the next generation of creative leadership, in whom we entrust so much.

Submitted by Arts on the Block