ArtsForce pivots during pandemic develop essential professional skills

July 13 2021
Image courtesy Cayden Turnbow Image courtesy Cayden Turnbow

For artists across disciplines, a year confronting COVID-19 illuminated a pressing need to develop and maintain new skills. Suddenly remote interactions, changing performance & exhibition schedules, virtual formats, and increased need for broad coordination were the norm. Both students, and arts alumni alike, found themselves trying to shape-shift to maintain creative momentum.

The Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) regularly surveys arts alumni nationwide to learn how graduates are using their education, and what skills prove most essential in the workforce. Since 2008, SNAAP has collected and analyzed data from over 200,000 arts alums.

A recent SNAAP report looked specifically at how COVID-19 impacted the needed skills of arts graduates. Comparing past surveys with interviews specific to the pandemic, researchers found that arts alumni continued to rely on financial and business management, entrepreneurial, and networking skills, a trend well-established in past SNAAP research.

But new needs also became apparent: technological skills and collaboration.

The ArtsForce program at the University of Utah, consistently ahead of the game in anticipating the professional needs of students, was already serving these needs before the data was released.

The SNAAP DataBrief read: “…two broad categories of skill emerged as increasingly relevant compared to pre-pandemic artistic work: technological skills and skills related to interpersonal relationships and working collaboratively…Technological skills were already a requisite for arts alumni. However, this was magnified during the pandemic, with technology mediating interpersonal interactions, work, and making or performing art to a degree not previously experienced.”

It went on to say, “Arts graduates reported that interpersonal relationships and working collaboratively were in high demand during the pandemic.” SNAAP further concluded that “those who developed stronger skills in this area were able to better adjust to the lack of informal, in-person moments for interaction, idea generation, and collaboration that happen more naturally when people are in the same physical space.”

Since its inception in 2013, ArtsForce interns discover and learn to articulate the value of their degree, as well as help connect fellow students to helpful campus resources. Through the program, students are able to not only connect with a broader professional network, but form meaningful connections with their teammates. In any given year, it is worthwhile work that bolsters coursework inside the classroom.

But in a COVID year where isolation was at an all-time high, the program proved invaluable. 

ArtsForce intern Cassandra Webb said, "I'm very glad that I got accepted into the ArtsForce internship during 2020. It gave me a reason to reach out to people and continue learning when the pandemic was making that nearly impossible otherwise.” 

Here are the ways ArtsForce pivoted last year, making use of available technology and putting collaboration at the center of their work:

  • Networking on Instagram Live
    In place of an in-person annual networking event, ArtsForce took the innovative route of interviewing CFA alumni and current students on Instagram Live. Over the course of several days, student followers learned about artists from their community, and expanded their networks using social media. The event also gave ArtsForce interns live interviewing experience, as well as experience producing virtual events specifically for social platforms.
  • Informational Interviewing through videoAFzoomArtsForce Interns (clockwise): Kaitlin Kerr-Osman, Bennett Blake, Cayden Turnbow, Katie McLaughlin, Pablo Cruz-Ayala, Kira Sincock
    Where students might often ask professionals for in-person meetups to conduct informational interviews in order learn more about various potential career paths, COVID-19 made these opportunities tricky. ArtsForce asked professionals to meet over Zoom instead, and kept the momentum going on virtual interviews that proved valuable for students and connected them to the community at large.
  • Bringing alumni into the picture
    Throughout the year, ArtsForce collaborated and connected with CFA alumni. Working with the Fine Arts Ambassadors, ArtsForce helped host a series of professional development panels that were open to all students from across disciplines. Interns also attended quarterly meetings of the young board, to promote their events, seek guidance, and develop relationships with alums.
  • Making the most of Zoom
    Though most of ArtsForce’s work had to take place virtually, the group worked to make the most of the Zoom platform to develop authentic relationships with one another. They began each meeting with an ice breaker question before jumping into business, and used breakout rooms to work in smaller groups.

"ArtsForce has allowed me to explore my interests and gain experience in the things I am interested in. I have learned more about social media and event planning and organizing. I’ve also learned more about networking and reaching out to professionals which will help me already have connections upon graduation and meet more people in my field."
-Kaitlin Kerr-Osman

"Being a part of ArtsForce during COVID was a valuable experience because it taught me the importance of being able to pivot. Everybody on the team got the opportunity to make valuable contributions and it felt like a community." 
Bennett Blake

"My internship gave me a sense of community in multiple ways. With my team, I gained friendships and leaned on others during “zoom fatigue."  With my assignments and programming, I connected with my college, both within and outside of my area of study. I served my learning community while strengthening my professional one. Meeting arts professionals with an array of backgrounds will change the trajectory of my college and post-college career."
- Katie McLaughlin

"This past year I have had the chance to plan projects and events from start to finish. I think that the experience I have had during the video projects will be especially useful for the work that I would like to go into after I graduate. I also know how to approach professionals for help, which is something that I felt discouraged from in my previous work. I think what will be most helpful is the knowledge of the variety of people needed in the arts world. Going into this internship, I assumed that I needed to show artistic skill and a mastery of my craft if I wanted to have any chance of working in the arts, but after meeting people who are event and gallery coordinators, I am confident that I will have a hand in making art available to others in one way or another during my career."
- Cassandra Webb

"One of the biggest skills I gained from ArtsForce that I know will help me the most after I leave the CFA is the importance of team building and the ability to collaborate and communicate effectively. In the arts, it’s so important to recognize the creativity of those you’re working with and be able to navigate difficult situations or controversial ideas with an open mind. Along with that, it’s important to take risks and try different things. ArtsForce helped me open my creative mind and build on the skills that are necessary as I start a career after college. Because of ArtsForce, I have the skills to plan and execute events, work effectively with a team, collaborate with artists, grow my network, market my art, and communicate my ideas successfully."
- Merinda Christensen

"ArtsForce has served as an incredibly valuable part of my college experience and has prepared me for my professional career in the arts.  One of the most important skills was learning how to develop and continue meaningful relationships with professionals, and garner a passion for learning about their career through informational interviews.  I've gained skills that are helpful for working on a team, such as organization, communication, and time management.  Ultimately, a lot of the skills I've gotten from ArtsForce are transferable to a variety of different fields and positions, which helps me feel more prepared for wherever my future takes me." 
-Kira Sincock

For more on ArtsForce and to get connected to professional development resources in the College of Fine Arts, visit