Arts and Culture Advocacy Series: Doneeca Thurston

The Arts and Culture Advocacy Series features voices in the community who are actively working to promote arts and culture as an essential and valuable part of business, community, and daily life. 


Tell us a bit about yourself and what role you play in the creative community?
I’m a Creative Engagement Producer at the Peabody Essex Museum, which is a really fancy way of saying I work in the education department, focusing on public programs. I feel very fortunate in that I’m one of the creative forces behind some of the amazing things that happen in the museum. I often get to work with Creative Collective and other local artists, and it’s been really empowering to be able to support someone’s craft not only giving them the opportunity to showcase their talents in the museum but to compensate them for their time, that’s really significant to me. 
 
It’s amazing how many people offer to perform for free, but I really try to reinforce that “I want to pay you, and I want to properly compensate you for your time and skill, so don’t lowball me. Tell me what you need.”

As somebody that doesn’t really have a traditional art background, working with so many different artists from so many fields and mediums [they ask] “If you just have a general fee…” And I always say no, you could be a videographer who spends 60 hours on the backend doing all this editing or somebody who brings all their own paint supplies and does an all-day pop-up studio session. It just doesn’t feel right offering a general fee. 

Why do you feel the arts, culture, and creativity are important? 

Arts, culture, and creativity offer a more accessible way to find meaning, and for people to connect. I’m from Lynn and I didn’t really grow up in museums. I’m actually an oddball in my family because both my parents aren’t interested in museums in the slightest.

When I came across Raw Art Works in Lynn, their art therapy program really helped me voice my feelings and frustrations as a teen going through this whole divorce process, and not having anyone to confide in. Finding art as a medium of expression was an “Oh My God” moment. 

That was awesome for me because my parents did well for themselves, but it’s not as if we had money lying around to send me to a special school to take art classes. 

I think art is just a great way for people to not only express themselves but also as a way to really give people a platform to express who they are. We’re not all articulate with words, we don’t all speak the same language, and some of us don’t speak at all. So using art as a way to be seen and heard is really powerful, for sure. 

So many artists end up doing projects for free, and while some artists can afford to do that because maybe they have a 9-5 and they practice art in their spare time. I think paying people for their time is more powerful because it really reinforces that artists identity.

Doneeca Thurston, Creative Engagement Producer, Peabody Essex Museum
Will you tell us a bit more about your experiences with RAW?

I resorted to self-harm when I was about 16 years old and started seeing a therapist. The summer before my junior year of high school I saw a flyer in the auditorium that was for a summer film school program, and I thought “I’ve never really tried film but I’m a young person, I have things to say, and I want to learn skills.” 

I think there were about 8-10 of us who tried the summer film program, from all over the North Shore, so I made new friends outside of my traditional school setting which was refreshing because I felt as if I had been going to school with the same people since preschool. My identity was evolving, trying to figure out who I was becoming, with all these reminders about where I came from. RAW was a fresh start for me in so many ways. 

After the summer program, I applied for their year-long film school program, and I also joined the young women’s group called “Women 2 Be”. We took awesome field trips to different art museums and I got to meet new lady friends, some of whom I’m still very good friends with to this day. 

My senior year I stuck with “Women 2 Be” and also became a RAW Chief, so I got a leadership position and was working with one of the staff co-leading a middle school group once a week. That was really cool, it definitely changed my life. 

RAW is a youth arts organization, rooted in art therapy. At its core, RAW believes that all kids should be seen and heard and that everyone has a story to tell. Located in Lynn, Massachusetts, RAW offers a variety of free programming from painting to filmmaking, for kids ages 7-19. RAW uses art to ask kids “what is really going on” in their lives, giving them the tools to create in unexpected ways, and envision new possibilities for their future.
How do you feel arts, culture, and creativity most profoundly impact your personal and/or business life?

I’ve met so many great people through the artists and arts organizations I’ve collaborated with while also dabbling in the arts myself. I recently met someone who is a fiber artist and shared with her that I used to crochet with my Nana when I was a kid before she passed away. We got together for coffee and she retaught me how to crochet! Had I not had these connections through my work with arts and culture, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to pick up that skill again.

It’s the people that I’ve been able to meet and build relationships with that have created this network. I find that if I’m ever in need of an artist or wanting to work with someone new, I can easily call on these people within the community to tell me what’s up, and guide me in the right direction. 

Personally and professionally, it’s amazing to be in a community like Salem, and still be involved in Lynn – my former roots at RAW keep me engaged with the community and just this past year I was able to collaborate and create conversations and dynamic programming through a series of events with Beyond Walls and their community engagement efforts. Beyond Walls is a creative placemaking nonprofit also based in Lynn. 

I think art is just a great way for people to not only express themselves but also as a way to really give people a platform to express who they are. We’re not all articulate with words, we don’t all speak the same language, and some of us don’t speak at all. So using art as a way to be seen and heard is really powerful, for sure.

Doneeca Thurston, Creative Engagement Producer, Peabody Essex Museum
Share with us one event or initiative that falls under the arts, culture, creativity umbrella that you are really excited about and want to share with readers?

2019 is looming, but it’s all still a work in progress. I like to be flexible in my creative process. I think the ongoing initiative that I’m most excited about is the continued support of local artists, further collaborations with them, and the continued effort to compensate them for their time and incredible talents. 

I have a couple of colleagues who practice art in their spare time and they have always been really excited to hear that, as an institution, we make it a point to pay artists for their time no matter the scale of the project. I think continuing that initiative is really important, especially as an ally and advocate for the artistic and cultural communities. 

I know that some artists do projects for free, whether it is to get a foot in the door and/or for the greater good of a community, I also recognize that some artists can’t afford to do that because they need to maintain a 9-5 job to pay the bills and only have the ability to work on their art in their spare time. Paying people for their time and talent is powerful because it reinforces that crucial “artist” identity, that there is real value in the work that these creatives are doing.

Empowering artists in this way can really encourage them to take their craft to the next level. Everyone deserves an opportunity to showcase their talent and be seen as a true artist. To have their name or their art displayed in a museum that has this world-class reputation and include that in their resume or portfolio could launch them into the next phase in their art career.

My personal initiative, where and when I can, is to be that stepping stone to help people move forward. 

What would be one thing you would like to relay/request of future creative thinking business owners and leaders?

Make space. As a business owner or leader, sure, maybe you do a popup – and when you do a popup you may feature some local art. If you have a brick and mortar location, make space for artists to display their art. Or, hey, if you’re on the inter-webs, make a digital platform to engage local artists. Just be mindful of the opportunities you can create for your local artists because you could have a real impact on someone who is trying to embrace that artist identity.

You never know who could walk into that pop-up, brick and mortar location or view that digital platform, see some local artwork and think, “Oh my gosh, I need that in my life.” 

How do you feel that being a member/partner of Creative Collective gives you the tools and support to reach your hopes and aspirations for the creative community? 

All the connections! Recently, with the Lady Power event at the museum, I used the collective as a resource to tap into the creative community to find some local woman artists to do some live painting. I sent an email to [John Andrews] about doing this all women-focused event and saying “It’s about empowerment” and having him say “We can do this, we can make it work.” was amazing! Having to focus on other parts of the programming, I wouldn’t have been able to do what the collective did in such a successful manner, providing us with three diverse local woman artists. 

Having access to that network and being able to trust that Creative Collective will come through, no matter what, that’s incredible.

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