As recent art therapy graduates hoping to transform our mutual passion for community work into our practice, we realized that little information was available about how to work independently of an organization. Motivated by long conversations on our hopes about representation and inclusivity in the future of art therapy, we took the chance to start our own organization, artspace therapy.

Early in that process, we realized that being new professionals was actually our biggest strength: starting from the ground up rather than joining an existing organization or practice, was helpful in many ways. We recognized that we didn’t know enough about any of the things that needed to be done but knew enough to learn more. It allowed us to be aware of the scope of our skills, taught us to be clear and concise when communicating with partners, encouraged us to be thorough with our proposals when presenting projects and to be intentional about seeking supervision to expand our vision.

Despite feeling that presenting at a conference was for experienced professionals, we were invigorated by our experience of creating artspace therapy and submitted the proposal for a focus group to be held at the 50th American Art Therapy Association Conference.

We All Can Do It!

Though excited when preparing for the focus group, we were uncertain about how much we could offer given our newness in creating an organization. Knowing the attendees would bring their own experiences and knowledge, we decided to structure our time with open-ended topics for group discussion. Drawing upon our experience of over a year of work, we proposed the following topics: (1) What passion drives you? (2) In drawing or writing, what would your dream be like if there were no barriers to bringing it to life? (3) What ethical considerations should we think about? (4) How can social media be used for outreach? And finally, (5) How will you collaborate with partners to plan and charge for services?

Eight art therapists of various backgrounds and ages joined us in the group. In the discussion, we learned that they had varying levels of experience (from 20+ years to a current student close to graduation), but all were new to independent community-based work. When sharing our interests, we noticed that the unifying theme was that past experiences with volunteer work inspired the idea of engaging in community work. On the topic of barriers, everyone agreed that financial stability was the biggest reservation to devote full-time to our passion projects. Ethical considerations varied depending on the population, state licensure and credentials, and previous interactions with the communities. Three art therapists commented that they would like to find a partner that complemented their perspectives, referring to what we had previously said about our collaboration as key in all aspects of building artspace therapy.

Since some experience of starting an organization was needed to discuss the challenges and advantages of social media, we shared that in our case it was tricky to produce engaging content and our aim was to have an expert take over that aspect of outreach. In terms of partnerships, we identified that having training in establishing relationships with clients and treatment planning helped to organize and plan for services and that for fees we could consult with peers and supervisors to ensure appropriate rates. As a closing exercise, we asked each person to share one word to take away from the group, which included: partnership, research, confidence, connection, invigorating, perseverance, and collaboration was repeated twice. The participants commented that they would have liked more time to continue the group discussion.

Our Take-Away

We observed a positive response to the structure of the discussion with the topics we proposed, filled with questions and good humor. We felt that the advantage of facilitating a focus group was the opportunity to collaborate within a professional environment with people who share the same interest and was less intimidating than presenting individually. We were pleasantly surprised to notice that experienced art therapists were also enthusiastic about participating, making the focus group more open than initially imagined and normalizing the doubts of starting one’s own project. As a result of being at the conference, our confidence and motivation increased, thanks to both the group’s active participation and sharing our lessons in building an organization.

Written by:

Iman Khatib

Luisa Mariño García