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Chiemeka Offor

Permission to Create: Five YoungArts Award Winners on Sustaining Their Creative Practice

By Nicole Martinez | August 30, 2022

Young artists today are navigating a challenging environment when striving for a sustainable career. As funding for arts education dwindles in public schools, the cost of art school is only getting higher: As The Washington Post reports, 7 out of 10 of the most expensive colleges in the country are art schools. Startlingly, of an estimated two million arts graduates, only 10 percent make a living as working artists, according to an artist-conducted study by the BFAMFAPhD coalition. What’s more, leaving the certainty of a college arts program and diving into a world where mentors and resources are no longer so readily accessible certainly fuels challenges for many artists.

YoungArts has made it their mission not only to identify and nurture young, high-school aged talent; they’ve also created programs that support artists as they navigate their career, even as more and more barriers arise along the way. From providing access to mentorship, creative opportunities and professional development resources through their digital award winner platform, YoungArts Post, to offering monthly microgrants to support new projects or simply contribute to their expenses, YoungArts considers the implicit challenges artists face to give them permission to continue creating.

Can we imagine a world without artists, or one in which their creativity isn’t nourished? Isaiah Day, a 2019 YoungArts winner in Dance, vividly remembers the moment he knew he could only be an artist. “I did not know I was an artist until being able to perform Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s ‘Shelter’ at Juilliard’s Spring Dances 2022,” he says. “I remember losing myself in the last show, being transcended to somewhere I cannot begin to explain. This is when I recognized that artistry is within me. I knew that I was an artist.”

Yet Day’s trust in his craft and determination to pursue it wasn’t always clear. “During my junior year, I was in a state of realizing that high school is not forever, and questioning what I was going to do next,” he says. “I did not think dance was a possibility for me. It was really just something that I loved to do. After receiving the call about YoungArts and experiencing [National] YoungArts Week in Miami, I realized that I could actually do this thing.”

Isaiah Day performs ‘Shelter’ by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (1988) at Juilliard Spring Dances 2022. Photo by Erin Baiano.

What does ‘doing this thing’ actually look like? Chiemeka Offor, a 2019 and 2020 winner in Photography , “had no idea what it would look like, some jobs have clearer expectations and steps needed in order to enter the career, and others are more fluid, like art,” she says. “I do a lot of freelance jobs, collaborations and continue to find opportunities to show my work and have it supported whether it be through group shows, grants, mentorships, and more.”

While many artists are balancing a number of projects and navigating the lack of economic consistency a career as an artist carries with it, Carlos Hernandez, a Photography award winner in 2019, remains positive about the outlook. “Early on, the only image I had was that of the starving artist,” he says. “Yet, the reality is that artists are everywhere and anywhere, and in this age many underrepresented artists are leading the change to reimagine our communities and their possibilities.”

Njari Anderson, Birdsong (2022)
Carlos Manuel Hernandez, Savannah in Her Bedroom (2021)

Other artists, like Njari Anderson, a 2019 Visual Arts award winner and U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, struggle to find the upside without programs like YoungArts. “The art world has taught me that it is an incredibly hard space to sustain yourself as an artist. You have to find this perfect balance between output, relevance, charm, marketability, and time to take care of yourself,” he says. “YoungArts helped me reset and recontextualize the kind of art practice I wanted to cultivate and the kind of artist I wanted to be.” Most recently, Njari received a microgrant from YoungArts to fund a new life-sized sculpture which he has identified as “another pivotal turning point in my career.”

Joshua Banbury

Most importantly, YoungArts creates a lifelong network that gives artists a sense of belonging and a community they can always come back to. As Joshua Banbury, a Theater and Voice award winner in 2013, says, “it’s an interesting adjustment to transition out of college, a communal experience, into your individual practice, which can be, at times, very isolating. I’ve come to realize that artmaking is ultimately a communal experience, and friendships are necessary.”

Do you know an artist age 15-18 or grades 10-12? Encourage them to apply to YoungArts using our selection of information packets, digital posters and more. The 2023 application closes Friday, October 14. 

Ask an Artist: Speak with past YoungArts award winners to learn more about the YoungArts community, pursuing a career in the arts, the benefits of applying and your artistic discipline.

About the Author:

Nicole Martinez is a cultural producer, writer and editor based in Miami. She is the associate director at Fountainhead Arts, an artist residency dedicated to elevating and supporting artist voices. Her writing has appeared in Cultured, Hyperallergic, Art Newspaper, Artsy, and others.

Follow her on Instagram: @niki_frsh

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