The Artists are Here
Waco is and has always been home to creatives. It has a rich history in blues and gospel music, and today you can find any kind of professional artist — singers, musicians, actors, painters, photographers, filmmakers, graphic designers — that is, if you know where to look. And that’s the problem that needed to be solved.
About a decade ago, when Waco first began shifting into this current cultural renaissance and period of growth, various organizations and community leaders were talking about the need for a local arts council that could unite Waco’s artists, arts organizations and venues, and foster collaboration among them.
“We started from a recognition that there were a number of really game-changing things that could happen in the arts and cultural sector,” said Fiona Bond, executive director of Creative Waco. “But every single one of them needed for there to be a local arts agency, a commission on the arts or an arts council — some kind of strategic and resource-focused organization. And there wasn’t one.”
Bond isn’t from Waco. She was born in England and grew up closer to France than London. She fondly remembers taking day trips across the English Channel. She grew up surrounded by the arts. All her paternal relatives were musicians while her maternal grandfather was a lighting engineer who worked in theater, and her maternal grandmother was a visual artist who designed fabric for Liberty, a luxury London department store best known for fabric with bold, quintessentially British designs. Bond herself plays a range of instruments, including the bagpipes. Ever since her first job in which she ran a poetry festival, Bond has been involved in the local arts scene of whatever community she’s found herself in. Bond, along with her husband, Bruce Longenecker, and their two sons, Callum and Torrin, moved to Waco in 2009 when Longenecker joined Baylor University’s department of religion faculty. She brought with her a wealth of knowledge and familiarity about arts councils, how they operate and how they can successfully impact the economy and culture of a community. But no amount of experience could replicate her personality, an innate charisma that draws people together.
“There was a group of us very interested in the arts and very much trying to figure out, how do we gather everybody?” said Lisa Sheldon, a founding Creative Waco board member and past chair. “Truly, Fiona was the impetus. We saw that Fiona had the ability to do that. She could bring those groups together. She saw things from a different perspective.”
Creative Waco is now in its fifth year, and it serves as the local arts agency on behalf of the city of Waco and McLennan County. During its existence, Creative Waco has provided matching grants to arts projects, it’s helped creative professionals network and find community as well as commissions, it’s mentored young creatives while creating lasting public art, and it’s been a part of seeking three arts-related designations from the state of Texas.
“I’ve lived in cities like New York. I’ve lived in Houston. I’ve lived in Atlanta,” said Katie Selman, co-founder of Keep Waco Loud. “And one of the things I love about Creative Waco is that they’re building the art scene that I want to see here. The artists are here. They’re not creating the artists. They’re creating a platform so that the artists can flourish and create and get paid.”
Even in the middle of a pandemic, our local arts agency is thriving. Just this year, Creative Waco received a grant for $50,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s provided monetary relief and resources to artists whose ability to work has been affected, it teamed up with local businesses and artists to colorfully remind folks to wear a mask, and through more permanent public art, it’s provided new entertainment opportunities that can safely be enjoyed for free.
All with Fiona Bond at the helm, and that’s why she is our 2020 Wacoan of the Year.
The Right Person Emerges
The Waco Foundation and Cooper Foundation both contributed to the establishment of Creative Waco; something that might not have happened if Bond had not been its executive director.
“One of the strong components of why Waco Foundation trustees wanted to give the grant was because of Fiona Bond,” said Kris Kaiser Olson, Waco Foundation board of trustees chair.
“There are moments in time when the right person emerges to do something, and it was pretty clear to all of us that Fiona was the right person to take on this whole new way of thinking about supporting the arts in Waco.
It was a good idea. It was a good proposal, but what made it a strong request was the skills and experience and competencies that Fiona brought to the process.”
Chris McGowan is another one of Creative Waco’s founding board members and its current treasurer. He remembers first meeting Bond when he was working on Imagine Waco, a plan for the development of downtown.
“Some of the discussion around the Imagine Waco plan started to bubble up about the arts and the value of the arts, and she came into my office at the chamber,” McGowan said. “I’m not an artist, and I didn’t know anything about that, but she educated me.”
According to McGowan, after that initial conversation, he and Bond began speaking with arts organizations, specifically about the importance of the arts in a community as it relates to economic development. These conversations resulted in the Waco Arts Alliance, a networking group for arts leaders that still meets today and is under the Creative Waco umbrella.
“Ultimately, it was, ‘We need to move this thing a little further forward,’ and we pulled a group of people together that ended up starting the organization Creative Waco,” McGowan said. “Fiona had done a great job of talking to people about the value of cultural activities and creative people in our community, and that’s translated into all of the great things that Creative Waco does today. It’s just so essential to have a coordinated effort, and I’m super glad that she stuck through all of that time, [initially] on a volunteer basis, and has been able to really do amazing things over the past few years Creative Waco’s been officially chartered. It’s pretty amazing to think about where we were 10 years ago and where we are today, doing all of these amazing projects, supporting the arts.”
We’ve Got the Hat Trick
“There are a lot of things you can do in the arts and cultural scene in Waco, but they’re all very spread out. You have to seek it out,” McGowan said. “The idea behind a cultural district is you have a critical mass of these types of things in one place, generating a hub of activity.”
In 2010, Imagine Waco was adopted by the city, and one of the many aspirational goals of that initial plan was to strengthen Waco’s arts scene, specifically through the creation of a cultural district.
According to the Texas Commission on the Arts, “cultural districts are special zones that harness the power of cultural resources to stimulate economic development and community revitalization.” There are 48 cultural districts across Texas. Of course, the big cities have designated districts — in fact, multiple — but for brevity, a few examples are Deep Ellum in Dallas, The Tre in Houston and Six Square in Austin. But even towns smaller than Waco, like Clifton, Bastrop and Salado, can have them too. Once a district is designated, its managing entity is required to report annually on things like new initiatives, events and the number of visitors to the area in order to maintain its status. The benefit of being a cultural district is that the distinction serves as a beacon that attracts more artists, encourages tourism and business development and develops the area’s cultural identity.
After Creative Waco’s founding in 2015, applying to become a cultural district became its initial focus. The process took a year, and then, on September 7, 2016, TCA designated Downtown Waco a cultural district.
“We did it very efficiently. We scored the highest of any community in Texas with our application,” Bond said. “Now people come to us to learn how to put together a cultural district.”
According to Lisa Sheldon, TCA was impressed not only with the video production aspect of Waco’s application but also the surprisingly vibrant arts scene already in the making.
“A lot of times Waco gets sold short,” Sheldon said. “We have a tendency to think of ourselves as second-rate to Dallas or Austin. And it took somebody going, ‘No, we are not. We are putting out really quality stuff.’ Everything we’ve done, we’ve tried to set a standard of excellence.”
And as Bond said, not everyone intrinsically knows how to go about applying to be one of Texas’ cultural districts.
“That takes experience and knowledge to be able to do that,” Olson said. “And it takes a lot of hard work. Fiona’s willingness to do that work, to get a team of people in Waco to do that work, and to shepherd it through all those difficult steps was worth it. It changed the way the arts could be supported in this community, and it makes it possible to apply for so many other grants.”
Building off the momentum from the cultural district designation, the city quickly acquired another distinction in January 2017 when Waco was recognized by the Texas Film Commission as a Film Friendly Certified Community.
Basically, this certification tells filmmakers we want their business. Film production can stimulate a city’s economy through a number of areas like lodging, catering and dining, transportation, construction or local jobs. The Film Friendly Texas program connects media professionals with local liaisons that can provide Southern hospitality and help them navigate the ins and outs of filming in a given community. For Waco, that liaison is the Waco Convention & Visitors Bureau.
While that certification process was underway, Creative Waco had given its first Arts Match Program grant — for $10,000 — to Deep in the Heart Film Festival, which held its inaugural event in February 2017. AMP provides matching grants to high-impact or innovative projects that help advance the goal of the Waco Cultural Plan.
“AMP allows diverse groups across our community to be able to do really experimental, strategic, artistic development,” Bond said. “We’ve ended up with two new film festivals, for example, both of which were international, both of which have brought significant numbers of people from the film industry into our community and have been part and parcel of us being designated a film friendly community.”
In August 2019, Creative Waco — along with Waco CVB, Keep Waco Loud, Music Association of Central Texas, Texas Music Cafe and Lindsay Liepman at KXXV-TV — set its sights on another designation: Music Friendly.
“There were a number of different partners who had been really intent on trying to signpost Waco as a place that historically, and also currently, offers some of the best live music that you can hear,” Bond said. “All across the country, you can hear cover bands, but Waco has always been home to singer-songwriters.”
After another yearlong process, on July 30, 2020, Waco became the 12th city in Texas named a Music Friendly Community.
“That’s a big deal,” said Todd Bertka, director of Waco CVB. “It helps open the doors to growing our live music and entertainment and performance across all genres. It’s not any one genre, but it allows us to really grow and promote our music experience here in Waco.”
As a part of the application process, the groups conducted a census of musical professionals, initially via the Keep Waco Loud website. Independent musicians, audio engineers, DJs, etc., could be part of the census by completing an online form. The data compiled from the initial survey is now accessible as the Waco Music Industry Directory, a searchable list of musicians and music industry companies in the county, which can be found on Waco CVB’s website, wacoheartoftexas.com/music. There’s also a new submission form for any music professional who wishes to be added to the directory, which must be annually updated for Waco to retain the designation.
“The designation is a tool in the kit,” Bond said. “It’s the beginning of the journey, not the end of the journey, but it’s a really important punctuation point to say Waco is recognized as being a significant home for live music, and just like with the cultural district, a place that is serious about developing this as part of our brand, as one of the things that people come to Waco for.”
Announcing Waco’s music friendly status in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t ideal. According to Bond, the partners had planned to host a festival showcasing the “musical magnificence” of Waco. Instead, they’ve done what everyone else has had to do in 2020 — move to a virtual format.
The original partners teamed up with Rogue Media Network to create a limited TV series called “Texas Music Cafe: Destination Waco” The show launched October 4 on KXXV Channel 25. It’s a 30-minute show hosted by Liepman and Keep Waco Loud co-founders, Katie Selman and her husband, Jacob Green. A Waco Symphony Orchestra holiday special airs December 20, and the current plan is for a total of 11 episodes that will conclude in early January. Bond and her son Torrin played the bagpipes inside Balcones Distilling as a part of an international music episode.
“Each week showcases a live music venue, musicians from our community who are creating new content,” Bond said. “The fact that we need more than 11 episodes to showcase all the different musical genres that have deep-seated expertise in this community, I think is a wonderful indicator that we are really on a great pathway here.”
The show isn’t just a good source of entertainment for the folks at home, it’s actually a gig for everyone involved and great exposure for potential ones in the future.
“We created this television show that shows all of the great history of music here in Waco, but also the great music that’s happening now, and we’re able to get musicians paid,” Selman said. “Fiona got sponsors, got us enough money to pay all the production crew and to pay the musicians. And it shows in 21 counties throughout Texas, showing everyone around Texas the music scene here in Waco and encouraging people, once it’s safe to travel, to come listen to music.”
So, now Waco can proudly claim three designations from the state of Texas that signal its commitment to growing its arts sector.
“As Todd [Bertka] says, ‘We scored a hat trick.’ Now we have the three,” Bond said. “They do all resonate with each other, and they create pathways for working with all the different partners within the community that need to be bought into the process to make those things really work.”
On the Map
When Creative Waco came on the scene it was fighting against not only external perceptions but also internal perceptions of Waco’s art scene. There were Wacoan artists and creatives who didn’t like to claim their hometown. Instead, they’d tell people they were from Central Texas. Waco’s cultural reputation, or lack thereof, wasn’t something they wanted to align themselves with.
“One of our arguments when we applied for the cultural district designation was that Waco was already home to people who are internationally significant, certainly regionally and nationally significant in the arts,” Bond said. “But we weren’t really appreciating that we had enough of a critical mass of that to truly be a cultural hub and a place that could genuinely market itself as being a cultural destination.”
Creative Waco’s first initiative in changing those perceptions was to hold a juried exhibition at the State Capitol called “Waco 52.” Anyone from McLennan County could apply, and then two international judges selected the top 52 works for the exhibition. “Waco 52” was on display in the ground floor rotunda of the Capitol during May 2017. Since that first exhibition, Bond said the perception of Waco has been already visibly shifting.
Lisa Sheldon agreed, “That kind of put us on the map. As far as people saying, ‘Oh, wow. Look at what’s going on in Waco. Look what they have — 52 amazing pieces of art from Waco, Texas.’”
The following August, “Waco 52” was brought back to Waco for a pop-up exhibition at 712 Austin Avenue, before it was Cultivate 7Twelve.
“It was kind of a ‘proof of concept,’ just to show that it was possible to have a downtown gallery and event space,” Bond said. “A number of people had tried it over the years, and it hadn’t quite worked. This time, we really thought that Waco was ready, and done with the right ingredients, it would work. And it did. Of course, Rebekah and Jeremy Hagman have taken it on since.”
The 52 artworks have since been turned into a set of playing cards that are available in select stores around Waco, including Cultivate 7Twelve, Common Grounds, Dichotomy Coffee & Spirits and Dr Pepper Museum; proceeds help support new arts initiatives.
In 2018, Creative Waco and community partners worked together to bring two world-renowned street artists to Waco. First in September of 2018, Waco became the first city in Texas to host a piece of street art by the anonymous artist Banksy. An exhibition at Cultivate 7Twelve titled “Writing on the Wall” featured local works inspired by street art as well as “Haight Street Rat,” a Banksy piece saved from destruction in San Francisco in 2010.
Then, a few months later in November, the Parisian graffiti artist Blek le Rat came to Waco and spray-painted murals at six different locations around the city, including a tribute to Kurt Kaiser, prominent church music composer, pianist and Kris Kaiser Olson’s father, who had recently passed away.
“That was just a nice, fun little thing when my brothers and all our family and everybody was here for the funeral and the memorial service,” Olson said. “That would not have happened had Fiona not had the daring to contact this world-renowned visual artist and say, ‘Hey, come to Waco and paint things. We’re really into the arts.’ One of Creative Waco’s talents is having the audacity to dream really big and then figuring out a way to make it happen.”
“In Honor of Kurt Kaiser” can be found at Apex Coffee Roasters at 324 South Sixth Street.
Art as a Business
Beyond providing funding and advocating for the arts, Creative Waco also offers professional development opportunities for artists and creatives in order to help them establish themselves as an arts business.
The Greenhouse is a six-month business development program offered by Creative Waco. It’s divided into three parts: an entrepreneurship essentials course that helps participants develop a business plan; coaching and mentoring with Greenhouse program manager Luann Jennings as well as industry experts; and finally, a money and marketing section in which participants create a marketing plan and a crowdfunding campaign for their business plan. The top five candidates in each class have the opportunity to present their business plans on “Pitch Night” and compete for up to $3,000 to fund the expansion or launch of their business. The program is sponsored by Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, TFNB Your Bank for Life and Startup Waco.
“The Greenhouse takes local artists and helps them try to figure out how to do what they love but make money doing it,” Sheldon said.
For young creatives, ArtPrenticeship is a mentored work experience that connects Waco ISD high school students with professional artists. Together, from concept to completion, they create public works of art, specifically murals.
“It just teaches so many skills,” Sheldon said. “And whether or not these kids go on to actually do art for a living, they have learned other life skills: how to present a project and how to start and finish a project. Sometimes with young people, we forget [to teach] those life skills, things that carry you through no matter what. It’s giving those kids a shot at learning some skills that they might not have otherwise.”
Olson said she and her husband, Charlie, have always been avid supporters of Waco public schools, and in the past, they’ve hosted fundraisers and patron events for ArtPrenticeship.
“ArtPrenticeship is giving opportunities to young people who are very talented, but who don’t have the support to get them the experiences they need to follow their talent into a professional realm,” she said. “We were just delighted at that opportunity [to support the program]. It has proven to be a successful venture.”
Cade Kegerreis, a local painter and photographer, is a mentor for the ArtPrenticeship program. “Art enriches people’s lives,” he said. “Free art especially. Free public art shows that a community has gotten to a certain level beyond just focusing on the economy. It shows the culture we’re developing.”
ArtPrenticeship’s murals are located at South Second Street and Jackson Avenue, at Brotherwell Brewing on East Bridge Street and at the Family Health Center’s MLK Jr. Community Clinic on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Herring Avenue. Installation for the next ArtPrenticeship mural was in progress as we went to press and is at TFNB Your Bank for Life’s Elm Avenue location.
Make It In Waco
If you haven’t visited the Waco Sculpture Zoo yet, you are missing out. It was featured as part of our end-of-summer bucket list in the August issue. Stretching a mile along the riverwalk of University Parks Drive, the Sculpture Zoo features 28 works showcasing animals that can be seen at Cameron Park Zoo or found in Central Texas. Free, educational, fun and an excuse to get out of the house, it’s the perfect social-distancing activity.
“I can’t tell you how many letters and emails and little notes I’ve had from people just saying, ‘At the high point of the shutdown, when we couldn’t do anything, we were able to walk around with our family,’” Bond said. “You see people, four generations of people, all walking around the sculptures, enjoying them, the kids playing among them. It’s so fabulous to see them being enjoyed. In some ways, it was really a shame that they were installed right before the shutdown, but in another way, it meant they instantly became a godsend to so many people in our community because they were literally all you could do going out with your family.”
Bertka, who visits Cameron Park on a weekly basis with his wife, agreed.
“The number of people that just love and enjoy the new zoo sculptures is just incredible,” he said. “Those are the kinds of cool things that Waco is gravitating towards.”
Another saving grace amid the pandemic, has been the relief Creative Waco has provided through its Make It Through Corona mini-grants and its new e-commerce website, MakeItInWaco.com.
“At the time it felt like a drop in the ocean, but actually it was for a lot of artists,” Bond said.
The MITC program continues to provide small grants of $250 to $500 to creative professionals who have had their stream of income interrupted by the pandemic.
ArtPrenticeship mentor Kegerreis received one of the MITC grants.
“At the beginning of corona time, I had quite a few jobs lined up that ended up falling through because the client could no longer put those funds toward the project,” Kegerreis said. “The grant was perfect for me to make it through until I could figure things out.”
Kegerreis had his first solo show open at Cultivate 7Twelve at the beginning of August. His $500 grant went toward supplies for the show, such as framing and prints.
This is Kegerreis’ third year with ArtPrenticeship, and he’s also co-designer for this year’s mural. The designs hit quite the speed bump when Kegerreis’ backpack, laptop, iPad, projector and other equipment were stolen out of his car.
Creative Waco started a GoFundMe for Kegerreis to help replace the equipment.
“That was amazing of them to take the initiative and start that,” he said. “But they help just as much with their energy and support as they do monetarily. They’re a great resource for local artists. I know a lot of people appreciate the work that they do and couldn’t survive as an artist without their support. That means a lot to our community.”
Another pandemic-relief focused initiative, MakeItInWaco.com is an online resource for local artists and artisans to sell their work. On the site, you can purchase original fine art and art prints, jewelry and accessories, virtual performances, stationery and stickers. You can also commission a number of items including portraits and furniture.
“Creative Waco has knocked it out of the park with everything that’s been going on,” Sheldon said. “They have done an outstanding job trying to figure out how to keep everybody going and keep them afloat through these crazy circumstances we have right now. It’s extremely hard for artists because they depend on our audience. No matter what you’re doing, you’ve got to have somebody to look at it, and if you can’t get people there to see you, then that’s a huge thing. The Make It In Waco website has really helped people figure out how they can do that.”
A Champion for the Arts
I first met Fiona Bond, of all places, at a local arts event. Back in 2009, we met at a social event for Concerto Circle, a special Waco Symphony Orchestra membership for young professionals under 40. My enduring initial memory of her is learning that her family had recently moved to Waco from Scotland. Waco Cultural Arts Fest had just concluded, and even then, she was already championing Waco’s arts scene, sharing how impressed she was with the festival and expressing her surprise and delight with everything our community had to offer. The two of us spoke in late October at Creative Waco’s office, which is located upstairs at Cultivate 7Twelve downtown.
WACOAN: What was the driving motivation for establishing Creative Waco?
Bond: It became really apparent that for any kind of sustainable cultural growth that was going to involve more than one organization’s ability to flourish, there was going to need to be an organization like Creative Waco. And it wasn’t just me that thought that.
Fortunately, our city council and our county commissioners and a number of leaders across our community at that time, including our trusts and foundations, also saw that vision and were willing to come alongside in what was really an experiment at the time of, ‘Would this work? Could we do this?’ I certainly felt like — having worked in a number of communities in several different countries where an organization like Creative Waco was a catalyst for change and growth — it was possible.
We had a really clear vision of what that could look like, but that’s no guarantee of success. So we all started knowing that we were doing something experimental and not quite knowing how it would go.
WACOAN: How was Creative Waco initially funded?
Bond: The Waco Foundation and Cooper Foundation both funded essentially the establishment of Creative Waco. Then the city came on board, designating us as their local arts agency to do regranting of funds that had been formerly granted directly by the city. We became a conduit for funding the symphony, the civic theater, the arts center and the arts festival, and then for analyzing the impact of that grant making.
It’s a $63.2 million direct economic impact that our sector has on McLennan County. It is a really significant driver of economic activity, and we’re noticing that right now because a lot of that activity has gone away during the pandemic. You can see that cascade of not having festivals, not having as much live music. It’s beginning to come back now, but not having the direct activity that we would normally expect to see is really hurting businesses and people. The cascade effect of that is huge.
During that first year, essentially, we gradually stepped into the role of doing strategy and funding on behalf of the city, the county and then catalyst projects as well. Things that couldn’t be done because there wasn’t an existing organization to take them on.
WACOAN: Can you define that initial ‘clear vision’ for Creative Waco?
Bond: There were some things which were really clear: ‘We want to be a cultural district. We want to find a really strategic direction or set of directions to grow in culturally and artistically.’ And those are all outlined in the cultural plan that we have, which pivots around growing the downtown as the hub for arts and culture, interacting with other sectors and finding the synergy with other sectors, building sustainability among nonprofit and for-profit arts organizations, finding more continuity between education nonprofit and for-profit arts endeavors.
Basically, that strategic direction was informed by all of the strategic planning processes that had gone on in Waco over a 10-year period. Every single one of those planning processes had said something about arts and culture but without any mechanism for implementing those ambitions. So we pulled together over 10 years’ worth of planning documents and sifted through all of them and distilled out all of the common threads and turned that into a strategic plan rather than just doing yet another iteration of asking people the same questions. We took what people had already said and turned that into action.
From that point of view, we have bullet points that outline these three strategic areas that we’re developing. We have metrics that show how successful we’re being. But at the same time, one of the superpowers of the arts and cultural sector is how adaptable and flexible it is. Creative people are problem solvers, right? It’s part of the creative muscle that we exercise is to problem solve and be adaptable. So, when something like a pandemic comes along, if you say we only operate in this way, and we only have these like 20-year-off goals, and we’re just going to stick to that, we’re never going to be able to address the acute need here and now.
We’re still very focused as an organization on those strategic goals, but in the short-to-medium term, there are real people with incredible hardship issues that we’ve had to completely reevaluate what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis, especially because the core activities of the arts and cultural sector haven’t been able to happen since early spring. That is going to have a lasting impact on the sector, and we have to be flexible, and we have to be willing to reexamine how our goals and priorities change in response to that.
Now, a lot of what we’re facing is how do we help people survive? We’ve gone from how do we help them thrive and become really sustainable to how do we help them survive and make the changes they need to accommodate — what I think are going to be really long-term changes in our culture.
And also, how do we connect people in our community when there is a real yearning and hunger for that in-person connection when we can’t do those kinds of activities in a normal way? I think we’re seeing that there’s a limit to what we can do online. There are some things that just have to happen in person, but probably with smaller groups. Maybe more frequently. Maybe we pay for them differently. So, I think we’re constantly having to re-examine and explore, and that’s happening across the arts, across the world. That’s not just Waco. That’s the conversation going on on Broadway and with every art form across the planet.
WACOAN: Speaking of the pandemic, one thing I’ve appreciated this year is the new Waco Sculpture Zoo. That was finished earlier this year, but it was obviously in the works well before 2020, right?
Bond: It was installed over last winter, early this year, and actually launched about a year and a half before that. Clifton and Betsy Robinson had this phenomenal idea of essentially populating the riverside area between downtown and the zoo with a few sculptures of animals. Their original vision was five or six animal sculptures.
Long story short, we put out a national call for artists, a request for proposals. The quality of submissions was so high, and the examples were so great that they said, ‘Let’s see if more people want to get involved in this.’ We held a cocktail party, and I don’t know what was in the cocktails that night, but by the end of the evening, we had 28 sculptures that people had said, I’ll sponsor that. And Clifton and Betsy were incredibly smart and generous in saying, ‘You know, we will go halves with people, and that way it makes it more achievable for everybody.’
We’ve ended up with these phenomenal sculptures, and there’s a really cool, interactive online map. As you’re seeing the sculptures, you can also find out about the artists, the donors, the animals in the zoo that are represented by each of the sculptures.
What I love best about the Sculpture Zoo is the entirety, because I think any one of those sculptures stands on its own as a really impressive work of art, but together they are so much more. There is a universal appeal and meaning that I think appeals to the best of our humanity. I defy anyone to not find something they love in that and something that makes them feel connected to the project.
WACOAN: Another way Creative Waco has had an impact during the pandemic is through the Make It Through Corona program. Can you tell me about that program?
Bond: It was able to do more than we had originally intended, but it was basically mini-grants that went to artists, performers and creative businesses that needed small investments specifically to take their arts-based output online or to a format that was going to be able to make money during the pandemic. Sometimes that was buying recording equipment or getting a computer. Sometimes it was getting some web design or high-end photography of products. Whatever it was that they needed to invest in to be able to make it through [the pandemic] as artists.
It didn’t replace, and it was not set up to be for paying the rent because there are other sources for that. It wasn’t for acute needs like hunger and that kind of thing because we have other outlets in our community that can address those kinds of needs. It was specifically for, what do you need to invest in right now that is going to allow you to create revenue from your artistic practice? We were able to help 19 artists with that, and it really was transformational.
We just recently did some follow-up, and a lot of them, once they were on our radar, that also helped when other opportunities came along. We did a project with the public health district and the city’s [COVID-19 Strategic Communications Group], where we had 17 artists in our community do temporary murals promoting wearing face masks for the Waco Safe Campaign, and those artists were paid for work that otherwise they wouldn’t have had. It also did a really great job of indicating businesses and organizations that were open for business but also being responsible. At that point, it really was not as politically charged as it subsequently became, but the idea was, ‘Hey, we want to get back to business. We want to do it in a safe way, and we want to protect the people who come into our space, and let’s do that together.’
It was a fabulous project in that not only did it pay artists, but almost all of the artists who did that got other commissions out of that. So, for some artists, they got a grant, then they got a commission with the Waco Safe Campaign, and then they got additional commissions. So they were able to turn that into productivity during COVID they wouldn’t otherwise have had, which was phenomenal.
We’ve tried to do the same with musicians. [‘Texas Music Cafe: Destination Waco’] pays musicians for the newly recorded material at a time when gigs are very thin on the ground. We’ve tried to use it as an opportunity to pay people what they haven’t been able to earn during the pandemic.
WACOAN: Waco now has its own Etsy-style marketplace, MakeItInWaco.com. That was something else that was created as a reaction to the pandemic, right? It seems like you were able to get that up and running fairly quickly.
Bond: The Creative Waco team is phenomenal. We have a really brilliant team of hard-working creative innovators. And literally within two weeks of the shutdown, we had figured out how to how to create this online marketplace. And another two weeks after that, we launched it. It was really fast, and one of the reasons for that was we recognized early on just how devastating this was going to be. At that point, we thought, ‘Well, even if we’re only doing it for eight weeks, it’s eight weeks that artists, performers and art space businesses could be earning some revenue when they wouldn’t be otherwise.’
As it’s turned out, it was a really good thing we did that because it has had to perform for so much longer than any of us thought would be that acute need. It’s become a lifeline for a number of folks, but it’s also helped us now. We’re able to do live and pop-up events. As people are able to get back to doing in-person experiences, we’ve kept the online marketplace. It continues. We continue to refine it.
We’re now really pushing the idea of people commissioning work for the holidays. Whether that be commissioning a pet portrait or a song for your spouse. You can even hire musicians to either record or perform for events like patio parties and social-distanced events. You can commission jewelry. You can commission a cartoon of your family by [Greg Peters] who was an animator for ‘Pinky and the Brain.’ You can commission any kind of artwork.
WACOAN: You mentioned the ArtPrenticeship program earlier, which has produced some very cool murals. Where did the idea for that project come from?
Bond: That came about as a direct result of one of the [Greater Waco Chamber’s] InterCity Visits to Cincinnati. We visited the Over-the-Rhine district. One of our former board members, [Robert Otis], who was also the president of National Lloyds [Corporation] when it was based in Waco, had been part of the process of developing the Over-the-Rhine district in Cincinnati.
One of the first things that struck everybody who was on that visit was that Cincinnati is covered with these absolutely glorious, enormous, sumptuous and artistically arresting murals. They’re everywhere, these huge, really impactful murals, and absolutely everyone on that trip came up to me at some point and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get murals like these in Waco.’ Which, you know, I couldn’t agree with more, but I also know to start a mural-based project, it’s always more expensive than people anticipate, but also the process is as important as the product.
One of the things that I really loved about this project in Cincinnati and several other projects like it across the U.S. and Europe is that as well as hiring really fantastic muralists from all over the world, this specific project is actually a work-readiness program for high schoolers. They run theirs a little differently to the way that we do, but we always say the product of our apprenticeship program is not murals. The product is high schoolers who have learned how to run and manage an art space project from concept to completion. The product is work experience and knowledge in our community and young people having that life-changing ‘aha! moment’ where they realize that their talents and skills and vision can fundamentally change their community, both in the way that it looks and in the way that it feels. That is the most satisfying thing about that program. We’re now in year three.
The pilot year, we did it on an absolute shoestring [budget] and with virtually no lead time. But we did bring in the leaders from Cincinnati to help coach us, and we partnered with Prosper Waco and Waco ISD so that we didn’t have to invent everything from scratch, and we were able to use [Waco ISD’s internship] program they had already put in place. We didn’t have to create that, which was a huge help.
We were basically able to just dive into the artistic component and then bring in people from across our community who could help coach the students on how to create a budget, how to work with a client, how to find an engineer to find out if a wall is structurally sound, how to timeline, how to do risk assessment, how to work with scaffolding, how to do OSHA training, how to calculate paint. They learn all of that, so by the time they’ve completed a project, they’ve learned how to talk about their skills and also how to manage their skills in a way that is marketable. They may never become professional artists, but whatever they do, whether they become a lawyer or an engineer or a musician or whatever, they will always be a creative professional. That’s what our community is getting as well as this beautiful artwork, which is designed and executed to a really high quality. We’re getting all these young people who know how to turn their intellectual property into something that benefits the community.
WACOAN: What were you doing before you started working for Creative Waco? Professionally and personally?
Bond: We had just got back from a year in the [United Kingdom] and had made the decision that we were committed to being in Waco for the foreseeable future. We were newly committed to Waco after coming back from having led the Baylor in St. Andrews program for a year.
I had just started my [Master of Business Administration] studies at Baylor realizing that pretty much all the things that I was doing in the U.K., I wanted to have a sense of how the business world in the U.S. was different. I had taught various business classes and courses in the U.K., but one of the things I realized quickly was in order to do any kind of teaching [in the U.S.], I was going to need to have a master’s degree in business. Just to feel like I understood the territory a little better. I jumped into doing the [Graduate Management Admission Test] and getting into the MBA program, starting my first semester of that.
At the same time as I started my first semester of the MBA, I started working with the [Greater Waco Chamber], the city of Waco and the local trust and foundations on what a local arts agency might look like and what a cultural district designation for Waco might look like, whether it was feasible to go ahead with that project. I was writing those applications in my first semester of doing the MBA, and we got funding and we got the greenlight pretty much from everyone that we spoke to.
We also pulled together a really fantastic foundational board for the organization in that semester. Kind of unexpectedly, came to the beginning of January, and we had the funding and the enthusiasm in place to make a start. I then went part-time with the MBA, increasingly part-time as it turned out. I have now graduated, but I was doing just one or two classes a semester.
We just jumped right in.
Literally that very first week, I was at a statewide convention for local arts agencies and was part of the statewide Arts Advocacy Day at the Capitol (which I’m chairing this year). And we had to come up with a name so that I would have business cards to hand out literally within a week.[The name for] Creative Waco popped up in conversation and kind of stuck, and Tyson Charlson at Integ doodled this crazy exploding W logo, which everybody instantly loved. What should have probably taken months was born like instantly in terms of an identity and name and logo. We then went back to look in a more detailed way about branding and decided we liked what had been done originally.
WACOAN: What has been your experience with other arts councils? Were you just familiar with them, or had you actually worked for them?
Bond: Every city I worked in within the U.K. We also lived in Germany. I lived in Italy for a while. I did not work in Canada, but I was familiar with a number of arts organizations in Canada. Everywhere that we worked, there was always some kind of commission on the arts council. I worked very closely with the Scottish Arts Council [which is now part of Creative Scotland] when I was working in Scotland. Right from my very first art-based job, I was always working with an organization that served that particular function and was really a catalyst not just for growing the arts but also for the strategic direction of that development.
It was [initially] surprising to me that Waco didn’t have that. Most of the cities that we looked to as being exemplars in the U.S. of really solid development of the arts and cultural sector all had a local arts agency.
WACOAN: What were some of those cities?
Bond: Some of them were ones that we were introduced to on chamber InterCity Leadership Visits. Cities like [Greenville, South Carolina], Nashville, Cincinnati, Louisville. I didn’t go on all of those trips, but people would come back from them going, ‘Hey, there’s this great organization,’ and I’m going, ‘Yeah, that’s what we need here.’ Cities like Dallas and Fort Worth and Austin, but even smaller cities. Even Clifton, Abilene, Lubbock. I had the privilege of meeting Chris Dyer — who is now our president and CEO of the Dr Pepper Museum, and his wife, Amanda, works with us — and he was running the local arts agency Arts Council of Brazos Valley. He was actually really helpful in terms of giving us a framework and helping us understand how it could work in a very kind of Central Texas flavor.
Honestly, Waco was just at the point in its development that even if I hadn’t been here, this would have been something to think about anyway. It wasn’t as if it was just about one person or a small group of people recognizing that this needed to happen. I think it was a matter of that being the next step for Waco’s development. We just happened to have the right people thinking about this at the right time, and we were really able to bring it together fairly quickly.
The cultural district application became a really good way of coalescing partnership organizations and the business sector, as well as the nonprofit sector, people who were already interested in the arts, plus neighborhood associations and the education sector — all the people who had a vested interest in making this happen. The cultural district application became a kind of rallying cry for people to come together and say, ‘We can see how that’s going to be transformational for our community. Let’s do this, and let’s work together to make this happen.’ It was a great opportunity and a great group of people that came together just at the right time.
WACOAN: What does it mean to be a cultural district? What is the significance and impact for our community?
Bond: It’s a way of signaling to people who want to invest more significantly in the arts across the state, across the nation, that your community is doing strategic investment in and development of the arts. It’s a little bit like the organic label for food or any kind of signal that you can send out that shows that you are doing something at a higher level and a better quality.
It’s really opened a lot of doors for funding for our community. We’ve gotten a number of grants. For example, this last year was the first year that we, as an organization, were eligible for getting National Endowment for the Arts funding. And we did. That’s partly because we’re a cultural district. When people are looking through those applications and they don’t know Waco from any other comparable community, they can say, ‘Oh, OK. They’re really thinking about this stuff. They have a cultural district designation.’
It’s something you have to maintain. You have to keep the strategic oversight. You have to gather metrics about the impact of the arts in your community. You have to connect the dots between the arts sector and things like community investment, affordable housing, education. You have to connect the arts to the other sectors that the arts speak into. It’s a way of showing that the arts and cultural sector is engaged, active, and part of a greater strategic initiative on behalf of the leadership of a community in how it’s going to develop. That is a big mouthful.
It says, we think the arts are important. We are actively developing this sector as one of the things that makes us distinctive as a community. And we’re joining that sector in multiple ways — to the way that our children are educated, the way that tourists experience our community, the way that we think about design and infrastructure, the way that we think about how human beings interact with our built environment. The arts become part of the conversation on all of those fronts.
WACOAN: What is your background with the arts? Have you been involved with the arts since you were a child?
Bond: Yeah, I was involved in the arts since being a kid, but I don’t think I ever imagined that it could be a profession. My parents sent me to dance class because I had way too much energy, but it was poorly directed. My mom and my grandmother were both visual artists. My grandmother actually designed fabric for Liberty London. My grandfather, on my mom’s side, was a lighting engineer. In his spare time, he did the lighting for a theater in London. His father had been a stage manager before him. So, you know, a lot of arty people on that side. On the other side, they were all musicians, as kind of hobbies rather than as professionals.
It was something I was steeped in and completely took for granted as a kid, and I was lucky enough to be raised in an education system that gave me every artistic and creative opportunity. Several classmates of mine became really well-known theater designers and actors and artists. It was not something I ever saw myself doing career-wise. I did a ton of music, and I paid my way through college playing in string quartets but always imagined I would do something different.
I had an opportunity right after I graduated [university] to run a poetry festival for the city that I was living in. And because by then I had met my husband, Bruce, and wanted a reason to hang around in the same city, took the job and ended up just loving it. My very first job, I was getting to meet Nobel Prize winners, like Toni Morrison and Derek Walcott. All these people who I had read their books and was completely in awe of their work, and I got to meet them in person at my very first job out of university and that just had me hooked. I then ended up running a larger festival in a different city, and then I got more interested in the role of the arts as a component of economic development and the interaction between cultural investment and economic growth. I realized how very intrinsically those are linked.
My husband teaches the emergence of Christianity in Greco-Roman culture at Baylor, and even when you look back in Greek and Roman times, you see that the cities that are prospering in that time are the ones that invest in their arts. Correlation does not mean causation. It might be that they invested in the arts because they were prosperous, but what we’re seeing increasingly in the research that has come out from people doing this kind of research over time is that investment in creative infrastructure creates an energy that cascades into things like entrepreneurship, into a place being seen as vibrant and distinctive and having personality and character.
WACOAN: Where else have you lived?
Bond: I was raised in the Southeast of England living closer to France than to London. We used to go for day trips to France. I’ve lived in Italy. Before I went to university, I took a gap year and lived in Italy during that year. My husband is from Canada, so we spend a lot of time in Canada. We also lived in Germany for a year, and within the U.K., we were in Durham, which is where we met and where I went to university and where I did the first festival. Then I ran the Lancaster Literature Festival. Then we moved to Cambridge, and from Cambridge, we moved to Scotland. We were in Scotland for 10 years before coming [to Waco].
WACOAN: I heard you were Scottish, but are you Scottish or did you just live there?
Bond: Well, I’m half-Scottish. My father is Scottish, and my mother is English.
WACOAN: OK. So, England, Italy, Canada, Germany, Scotland. Why Waco?
Bond: The really short answer is Baylor. Honestly, Baylor had been talking to Bruce. They’d been interested in recruiting him for about 10 years before we moved. It was me that said, ‘Honestly, Waco is not on my top 10 list of places that I’ve always wanted to live, and I really don’t see us moving to Waco, Texas.’ It was me that said that. But we reached a point where the kids were young enough and old enough that we had this window of opportunity that if we were going to look at moving somewhere else, we could. And career-wise for both of us, we were looking at a branch-decision opportunity.
At that point, Baylor approached Bruce again, and I think I literally rolled my eyes and said, ‘Oh, for goodness sakes, we should at least look at it.’ Partly because the department at Baylor had recruited a lot of the people my husband had really admired and had worked with in various ways over time. It just seemed to be an intentional bringing together of people who were real leaders in their field that we admired and respected, so that was at least worth a look. Even if it was in Waco, Texas.
Baylor was kind enough to bring both of us out, which was the first time we’d had a trip without the kids since they were born. Maybe that was part of it, but we instantly fell in love with Waco — me more than Bruce even.
The work I’d been doing in Dundee, Scotland, the more I looked into Waco I realized how many similarities there were. Dundee had gone from what we affectionately called the cultural armpit of Scotland to this UNESCO City of Design within a 12-year period. It had been really exhilarating to see that process for Dundee. It had been very rapid, and just a great coming together of leaders who had a common vision for ‘this city can be a real magnet for talent if we invest in the right ways, in the kinds of things that are going to make young, talented people want to live, work and play here.’ And the first time I saw Waco, I could see that it had not just opportunity, but the people we met were talking like that. It seemed very similar, even given that these are places are thousands of miles apart. I was not arrogant enough to think that I could be part of that process here, but I did see that it was a city on the rise or that it had the potential to be on the rise.
We really loved the people that we met and, you know, there was just something about it.
WACOAN: Is there anything else I need to know?
Bond: Certainly, in terms of Creative Waco’s trajectory, we’ve been really blown away by how much support and encouragement we’ve had over the first five years from across the board. And we are now turning our sights to the future. We’re looking forward to what that means, especially in a post-pandemic scenario, for cultural infrastructure.
One of the things we haven’t yet done as a community is thought about what kinds of spaces we need to create. Or do we need to create spaces for visual and performing arts? A lot of what we’ve done has been in the outdoor public arena. But we have this amazing opportunity in front of us as Magnolia develops its new network, and as, hopefully, we recover from the acute nature of the pandemic to start thinking about how we bring people together and what performing arts looks like in our community going forward.
We’ve been working with consultants, Keen Independent Research. The city engaged them, and we’ve been working in partnership with the city and county to look at feasibility for new performing arts infrastructure, looking at what we currently have, where the opportunities are with what we already have and where the need is. And then what is it that we can’t do as a community because we don’t have the infrastructure for it, and then extrapolating beyond that. This is where I think things get really exciting because — what is it that Waco could be known for throughout the world? With the right components and with really strategic thinking, now we could build opportunity that makes us a global player in the arts. I’m really interested in that conversation and where that conversation goes next.
We’re also hoping next year to do a public art master plan, which is a wonderful way of engaging the wider community into conversation about what we want to represent in our public art. What do we want it to look like? Where do we want it to be? What do we want it to be made of? Who do we want the artists to be? Which is a fantastic conversation to have, and we’re at a really good point to have those conversations, especially as we’ve seen how impactful public art can be in our community.
And then as we look forward, with all of the humility of knowing that it may not happen, if we look at the opportunity we have right now, we are the generation that gets to define Waco’s cultural identity for maybe hundreds of years going forward. We have an opportunity that I think is comparable to what the de’ Medicis had in Florence all those centuries ago. It’s really unusual for a city in this strategic of a location not to have already done that, and we get to be that generation for Waco.
That to my mind is why I’m here, I guess, analyzing all these years later. That’s something that has only slowly dawned on me that that is truly the opportunity that faces us as a community here and now and how important that is for our culture. The way we do that says something really important about what we think the values of this time in this place are regardless of all the crazy stuff that might be happening in the short term. We get to take a long-term vision, and we get to define how that looks going forward and how future generations will look back at us for having defined that. It’s pretty cool. We get to be that generation for Waco.
Creative Waco is supported by a full-time and part-time staff that includes Bond; Kennedy Sam, director of marketing and communications; Amanda Dyer, director of public art and development; Stefanie Wheat-Johnson, ArtPrenticeship program coordinator; Luann Jennings, Greenhouse program manager; and Rebekah Hagman, who owns Cultivate 7Twelve and assists with the Make It In Waco initiative.