As someone who has dabbled in ballet, drawing, painting, singing, and now, writing a question I’ve personally grappled with as I’ve explored potential career paths in the daunting quest to figure out: what to do with the rest of my life? Is it to pursue, or not to pursue a creative career? Is the potential to do something I’m passionate about worth the risk of ending up unemployed and penniless?
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dejha Carrington, Director of PR & Marketing of the National YoungArts Foundation, an organization boasting the likes of Viola Davis, Anna Gunn, Jenji Kohan, Nicki Minaj and Max Schneider as alumni, with the goal of nurturing the next generation of artists of various disciplines. The top artists (this year, a select group of approximately 800 from a pool of 12,000) receive national recognition, mentoring from master teachers, scholarship opportunities, as well as exhibition and performance opportunities in renowned venues, such as the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian, in order to provide these gifted artists with the proper resources to pursue their discipline as a profession.
As Carrington said, “the cliché of the starving artist is grounded in truth. We admire and praise artists with their power to inspire and move audiences, yet do not actively encourage young people to become artists themselves, simply because not everyone can be an artist for a living. Despite this, and in light of the budget cuts and subsequent lack of funding of arts programs in schools throughout the nation, we still need the arts to inspire the innovations of tomorrow, to enrich our lives, to encourage creative and critical thinking. We need to recognize the formative role the arts play in society, and the National YoungArts Foundation aims to do just that.”
Jessica Zhou: Can you describe the kinds of classes artists participate in during National YoungArts week?
Dejha Carrington: For each of the ten disciplines at YoungArts, we try to engage artists in activities and workshops that will assist them in practical settings, such as writing exercises or dance choreography. Additionally, we intentionally provide opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. For example, we have our classical students working with cinematic arts winners to score their films; and we offer visual artists the chance to sit in on a dance classes so they can start thinking about collaboration, and how one genre can influence the other.
JZ: Is that why the showcases often have two different categories of artists at the same time?
DC: In part, yes. In a real setting—in a professional setting—you’re not just looking at a theater piece with only theater professionals: you’re looking at a body of work that has voice professionals, classical musicians, and maybe artists in the digital arts who have done something to enhance that experience. As much as possible, we try to pair disciplines to spark collaboration.
JZ: Since practical skills are emphasized during the workshops, I was wondering if more abstract, theoretical concepts also have their place in workshops as well?
DC: Absolutely. Frances Stark, a contemporary artist whose work examines the roles of authorship and pop culture, opened up her studio to winners in visual arts and photography, and was able to both show her practical work environment and different approaches and philosophies to making art. She spoke with the artists about how to think about framing their own practice, and how they could use some of the concepts of collage, appropriation, and investigation into pop culture.
Essentially, “how can the artist’s work reflect or comment on contemporary culture?” These students were selected out of more than 12,000 in the country, so they’re already very gifted and talented. Part of what we’re trying to do is push their artistic development in new ways and to consider their role in culture.
During YoungArts LA, you could see the students being very mindful and observant of themselves in thinking about what they’re putting out there.
JZ: How was YoungArts was able to initially establish such a strong alumni network?
DC: I believe a large part is because throughout our 35 year history, YoungArts has provided aspiring artists with unmatched opportunities, notably as the sole path to becoming a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts.
Additionally, our selection process is rigorous – applications are reviewed by a national panel through a blind adjudication process. The program also speaks for itself: YoungArts Winners are offered incredible mentorship opportunities and master classes with teachers that are at the top of their game, and we offer financial awards that in many cases, have helped young artists reach the next phase of their career. Chris Young, for example, famously used his award money to produce his first album. Year after year, we’re engaging great artists and putting together exciting programs.
Finally, YoungArts is a community—an artistic family of sorts. We work to support our winners long after they’ve received their congratulatory letter in the mail, and to connect them to each other so they can continue to collaborate.
JZ: Definitely, it’s really easy to see how successful YoungArts has been when you look at the alumni, with all of the resources that have been provided. Tangentially, I was wondering what your personal opinion on the lack of funding of arts programs for students in general, in public schools?
DC: I think that schools are in a difficult place, and that the arts are tremendously important. Beyond nurturing and preparing young people to pursue art careers, understanding how things work in the creative mind, and how creative practice functions, allows people to approach problems in a different way.
There’s also a much bigger conversation that needs to be had about how important the arts are to the fabric of our society. I recently heard in a masterclass [from Chinaka Hodge, spoken word poet and playwright] that even before someone landed on the moon, a creative writer first thought of the idea. The things we know about Google Glass or the Internet started in Sci-Fi writings many years prior.
We know the importance of the arts, so it’s just a matter of making our artists feel like they can make a living on what they do, and training society to honor that craft.
JZ: It’s really interesting, because I actually recently took a class called “Sci-Fi & Fantasy,” and the thesis of one of my papers was how while science fiction seems far removed from reality, the hypotheticals that writers of these stories pose are often the starting points for scientists and engineers to explore new possibilities in invention and innovation, so I got super excited, hearing you mention the different things that came about because of science fiction! But then, when arts plays such a formative role in society, why is it that people don’t see its importance?
DC: There are many reasons— part of it is that a lot of people feel you can’t make a living off of the arts. The starving artist is a cliché, but that cliché is grounded in some truth.
One can make the argument that those who really want to become artists will make it work. But I don’t know that as the reality of things, especially with the way the market and economics function in our society.
I think the way that the system is organized around consumerism and materialism has a lot to do with that. Until we start thinking about things as a community and honoring people from many different disciplines across the board in a more balanced way, we’re always going to see an uneven playing field. That’s where programs like YoungArts become especially important in trying to give young artists an opportunity or a ‘leg up.’
There are many arts groups in addition to YoungArts who are also working toward a similar message: the arts may not always be the most obvious choice, but we can help show the path, and we can at least show how other successful artists have made their mark.” We’re trying to build momentum and create a culture of art lovers who support this mission.
JZ: I really admire what YoungArts does, and thank you for providing such a supportive community for young artists!
DC: Thank you! You know how we were talking about your Sci-Fi class, and how a lot of those writers thought about the big pie-in-the-sky ideas first? It may take a scientist or an engineer to execute a particular vision, but it first needs to be imagined. That comes from creativity and is the kind of thinking we aspire to value and nurture.