Cultivating a creative community that connects and understands creators: That is Artlink’s challenge

To many Fort Wayne area residents, Artlink is seen as a gallery space in downtown Fort Wayne where local and traveling artists show their work.

But to those who created and manage the organization, it is so much more, explains Matt McClure, its Executive Director.

About a year and a half ago, McClure led the charge to launch Artlink’s 212 program, which connects grassroots creators with professional mentors in their crafts nationwide to complete career-advancing projects.

He says Artlink’s founder, Bruce Linker, who dreamed up the original vision for the organization in 1976, has expressed a lot of interest in the 212 program, and something Linker told McClure on a recent visit stuck with him.

“He said: ‘I wasn’t trying to start a gallery with Artlink; I was trying to create opportunities for artists who are creating here,’” McClure summarizes.

“We’re just scratching the surface of that goal 40 years later,” he says.

Residents working in the 212 studio at Artlink.

It’s a conversation that hints at a philosophy McClure and Artlink’s Gallery Coordinator Maddie Miller want to cultivate in Fort Wayne.

Having a healthy creative community is not just about providing artists with funds and opportunities. It’s also about creating a community that is connected and understands what creators are doing.

“We want to change the language in which we talk about creativity in our community,” McClure says. “Creativity is not just about making fine art; it’s about the things we wear, the things we read, the things we consume, the buildings we walk through, and the places we live in.”

It’s a concept that has rallied creative communities worldwide with events like CreativeMornings, a free breakfast lecture series, which Artlink is sponsoring in Fort Wayne this year. The general philosophy is that art and creativity are woven into the fabric of society.

“Everyone is welcome. Everyone is creative,” as the website says.

But while the idea of a highly inclusive creative community is inspiring, taking practical steps to achieve it can be a challenging and elusive goal.

How does a community support creators of all types, making them feel that their ideas are not only welcome, but also able to thrive and achieve their full potential here?

There’s no one right way to do it.

For Artlink, it starts with going back to the organization’s founding principles of education, innovation, and exhibition, Miller says.

“We’re trying to look at each one of those to see how we can better integrate them,” she explains.

The opening reception of the 39th National Print Exhibition at Artlink.

For instance, when Artlink is exhibiting an artist’s work in its gallery, it’s examining how it can also help that artist sustain their creative career. What types of support do creators need?

An artist herself, Miller received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Printmedia from the Frostic School of Art at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. While there, she worked alongside other artists at a shared studio space and attended events like weekly art crawls to support other creators around town.

The experience helped her realize the benefits of having a highly connected creative community at her fingertips where she could seek advice or inspiration from other artists.

Since she’s moved back to Fort Wayne and started working out of a studio space in her parent’s basement, she’s craved more of these connections.

“There isn’t really one place in Fort Wayne where artist are coming together and meeting,” Miller says. “That makes it harder to find your community of artists and have dialogue about art here. What we’re trying to figure out as an organization is how do we make more conversations happen?”

While she’s not sure if a shared studio space is viable for working artists in Fort Wayne, since many work out of their homes to save money on rent, she’s interested in creating other opportunities for artists to come together and learn in accessible “third spaces.”

For instance, Artlink launched an Education Series for artists this year, which is free for members and only $5 for nonmembers. Each session covers topics like the business of art, health and wellness, or tips on practical skills like how to photograph your work.

By bringing artists together more often, Artlink would like to lay the foundation for more constructive critique among local creatives, too.

Visitors admire a piece during the opening reception of the 39th National Print Exhibition at Artlink.

“One thing we lack as a community is a place to have critique and conversation about what we’re making,” Miller says. “There isn’t a culture of having those critical conversations with each other yet, so people can take critiques as hurtful or negative, but really it’s just about having a culture of advancing each other’s work.”

While seeing holes in the local creative community can feel like a critique in itself, McClure admits, he points out that identifying areas for improvement is the first step in addressing a need.

“Knowing what we lack is part of crafting that equitable, creative community that we really want,” he explains.

The idea is that as more artists are able to learn from each other and make their work known, Fort Wayne’s creative community will become more than static spaces and one-off events; it will be an organism with a life of its own that generates more opportunities.

“We often talk about quality of place as being important in a community, which it is,” McClure says. “But the people supporting that place—that’s the root of it. If we have a community that is able to realize its full potential, then we have a stronger community for entrepreneurship, education, and a steady stream of creative jobs.”

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara is a Fort Wayne native, passionate about her hometown and its ongoing revival. As Managing Editor of Input Fort Wayne, she enjoys writing about interesting people and ideas in northeast Indiana. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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