We had the good fortune of connecting with Danielle Bunch and Melanie Ernestina and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Danielle & Melanie, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
This comes from a long-standing belief that information about the arts has been gate-kept either behind educational institutions with hefty price tags and zero guarantees of work or by other artists mitigating future competition. Melanie Ernestina and I [Danielle Bunch] are theatre educators as well, and quickly realized that within school systems there are several limitations to what resources, information, and preparation for life after high school theatre/music/art etc. are available to students. Fine Arts Forward exists to support BIPOC artists, student artists, and amateur arts professionals in their development by providing free, open-sourced information. We hope to forge an artist network within the Houston community where access to the arts is equitable, diverse, and inclusive and create space for advocacy on behalf of art workers, arts educators of all disciplines, and the creative economy within the city of Houston. One day, we’d love to expand beyond the city, but are focused on the community that raised us, taught us, and shaped us.

Applying to college can be a very confusing, complicated, process, especially for those interested in studying the arts. In addition to essays and financial aid, prospective arts students have the added stress of portfolios to present and auditions to impress. Often school counselors are overworked and ill-equipped to provide help to the average student looking to major in corporate environments; this leaves students interested in fine arts at a greater disadvantage to receive necessary information or worse, talked out of pursuing a “risky” career.

For BIPOC students and first-generation college students seeking higher education in fine arts, an already underserved population, implicit bias, and systemic oppression within institutions are an added challenge to navigate. We’ve been there, and want to provide real answers – the advice we wish we would’ve had. Although the adults in our lives were college-educated, they couldn’t offer any legitimate guidance on choosing the best theatre program for us, because they simply didn’t know what to consider. We’d like to believe we made the right choice, Melanie and I met at the University of Houston, but the opportunity to pick the brain of a like-minded professional before expensive life-changing decisions would’ve been comforting.

It’s our goal at Fine Arts Forward to provide a source of peace, confidence, and logic to every interested artist in the pursuit of their art using our growing network of creatives.

Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Melanie and I both agree that we’ve been very lucky to have been introduced to the arts at an early age and have our interests cultivated by excellent teachers within diverse communities.

Melanie’s response:
Since leaving the theater education field in the pursuit of my MFA Creative Producing degree, I’ve taken a lot of time to consider how to exercise my skills of educational leadership to evoke change for not just our fine arts professional communities but for our educational and institutional fine arts programs as well.

My overall professional mission is to align myself with a community or program that will help me provide safe creative spaces that are needed for present and future artists. This includes joining teams that are interested in their own continued development, active programming engagement and considerations, as well as making a true commitment to equitable and inclusive practices. Because while I am working with this team, I will also be able to advocate for a more diverse group of people to be included and spearhead creative work.

My goal is for all people to have full access to this form of expression and I intend to use previous recruitment experience to help eliminate the barrier that exists when it comes to accessibility. It is now time for a new wave of creatives to have that access which in turn generates community inclusion. This will rebalance and redistribute “perceived cultural capital”, equity, and as a result, will establish agency.

I intend to use the practice of providing data, resources, and ingenuity to those of us in BIPOC communities especially, to see it through that our writing, our designs, our bodies in the performance space, and our dollar on the line are taken into consideration for art-making.

I am dedicated to all artists that don’t make it to the doors of these institutions. I recognize my willingness to “play the game” while also seeking a passage to share my discoveries in my waking practices. I have found as a theatre educator and as an arts leader is that there is a disconnect of value, in which arts programs possess, between ourselves and potential future stakeholders. This is attributed to us (BIPOC) not being in the room to discuss the works being produced, to fix the lack of representation in the casting and crews of that work, all while making sure the quality of the production value stays intact.

I am here to grow not just for my craft but to pay it forward to others.

Danielle’s response:
Fine Arts forwards exist to fill a void Melanie and I both felt in our own careers and education in the arts. We believe the next chapter of our presence in the field is to create for others what we wish could’ve been there for us.

As a passionate and enthusiastic arts educator, I strive to continuously seek new methods and resources to improve as a leader. I imagine a world of education where STEAM is emphasized with sincerity; I want to help demonstrate the long-term value of arts exposure from an early age into one’s development as a critically thinking but empathetic citizen and lifelong learner. It’s why I’m so dedicated to exposing students to diverse expressions beyond the Western canon, so that they feel represented and valued. I want all students to have equitable and inclusive access to the arts.

What sets our organization apart is that Melanie and I have prioritized our own learning and un-learning to better address the systems within the arts, education, and there intersections, to respond with evidence-based solutions. In addition to teaching and acting, I’m currently a graduate student at Drexel University pursuing a MS in Arts Administration and Museum Leadership; my thesis is centered on the influence of American capitalism in the trajectory of modern arts education. I recognize the power of the creative economy and artists to our culture and way of life and truly believe the market is deprived of BIPOC talents who need a little extra support breaking into the arts world- that’s where Fine Arts Forward comes in. We’ve helped about a dozen students so far put together college admission materials, pick schools, prepare auditions, and build resumes. Eventually we want to be able to provide financial support to these emerging artists. So far it’s mostly been via word-of-mouth, but the network is quickly growing. It’s incredibly fulfilling! We seek to utilize the privileges we have to create space and autonomy in arts education and the professional theatre industry for all. Establishing ourselves with a reputation as collaborative and empathetic leaders who are driven by helping others within the arts and education is our shared goal.

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Our favorite places in the city are also where we happen to work and what needs the most support right now in this time of Covid- the theatre district Downtown, Main Street where MATCH lives, and the arts district in the Heights. These areas are always surrounded by close bars and restaurants which makes dinner and a show as a date night or outing with friends totally easy. We’re in agreement that once we park, we want options within walking distance or the shortest of drives!

Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
We want to shout out Actors Quarantine Corner, an interview series, started by Brandon Morgan, Joe P, and Kendrick Brown, three very talented Houston actors that took the halt of theatre performance and turned it into a new venture. The pandemic has impacted the arts and cultural sector arguably more-so than any other industry; they have used the last year (they recently had their anniversary) to discuss the state of theatre past, present and future, as well as perform themselves. They’ve featured us on their show, and deserve credit for their work too! https://www.aqcmerch.com

Website: FineArtsForward.com

Instagram: @FineArtsForward

Image Credits
All images courtesy of production photos from Firecracker Productions, Obsidian Theatre, Rec Room Theatre

Nominate Someone: ShoutoutHTX is built on recommendations and shoutouts from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.