Pittsburgh arts organizations focus on empowering local artists with 2021 VACE Fellowship | Visual Art | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh arts organizations focus on empowering local artists with 2021 VACE Fellowship

The Pittsburgh arts coalition known as VACE, or Visual Arts Coalition for Equity, started in 2020 as a response to the pandemic. But the program seeks to address equity issues in art beyond the struggles of COVID-19. The coalition continues its work with a four-month-long fellowship described as showing candidates “the ins and outs of small Pittsburgh arts business models, nonprofit governance, financial structures, programming, administration, and core values.”

The 2021 fellows include atiya jones, Karen Lue, Zoe Scruggs, Naomi Chambers, Shannon Thompson, and Kemuel Benyehudah. Scruggs, an interdisciplinary artist, expresses gratitude for being part of VACE as a fellow, saying that she has felt empowered during recent group meetings and able to recognize how she can utilize her previous experiences and knowledge.

“It’s been helpful to be given so many examples of how to structure an organization, create programming, and serve an artist community in general," says Scruggs.


The fellowship started in September and will run through December.

VACE is made up of eight small visual arts organizations, including Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, BOOM Concepts, Brew House Association, Bunker Projects, Casey Droege Cultural Productions, Nafasi on Centre, Silver Eye Center for Photography, and Women of Visions, Inc. VACE coordinator Dominique Chestand says that the organizations have always worked closely together, but it was the pandemic that made them realize their collective strengths and the ability to survive the crisis together.

“Despite the shifts we’ve seen during the pandemic, the needs within the arts sector have largely been the same. Artists and arts workers are often not making sustainable incomes within their local economies," says Chestand. “And our goal has always been to create pathways that drive the local art economy, especially for marginalized people who have little to no access to the resources they need in order to thrive as artists and arts workers. I think what was made clear in the midst of the pandemic is how dire the need for economic sustainability is.”

She adds that the Arts Equity Reimagined Fund gave the coalition financial support for its first year of operation.


The VACE fellows are chosen from a selection committee that consists of one representative from each of the eight organizations involved. Finalists are selected based on their previous work and current goals that align with the VACE’s mission of “equity and economic sustainability.”

“Even though we are arming fellows with a lot of information on how we operate as a coalition and as separate arts organizations, we don’t see our relationship with VACE Fellows as having a student/teacher dynamic," says Chestand. "We see them as accomplices. And we believe the fellows we selected were the best accomplices for the work we aim to do,”

Being accomplices in this sense comes with the responsibility to get to know the philosophies of each VACE member organization, including their stance on leadership and growth, strategic planning, and personal development. Fellows will do this by hosting virtual meetings and in-person events, as well as producing independent artwork.

"I’m excited to see what comes out of all eight of these organizations coming together, and the coalition-building being practiced between them is inspiring," says Scruggs.

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