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Youth artists tell us what they need to keep creating

Photos by Matthew Cole (Instagram @_edgeportraits_)

The saying goes: A picture is worth a thousand words. Picture 10 youth artists around a table. How many words are we worth? 

As artists, we share our experiences and perspectives through what we create. Art is our main, if not only, avenue of expression. This listening session, led by The Skillman Foundation’s President Angelique Power, was the first time many of us were asked by someone with the authority and means to aid us about those experiences. As well as most of our first time at Spot Lite, an artsy industrial-style cafe-work space on Beaufait St in Detroit.  

Let’s discuss Spot Lite for a moment. Around the space were tapestries—an exhibit curated by the venue’s owner—collections of vinyls available for sale, a bar, a small coffee shop area, and a makeshift stage set for the night’s performer. My artsy heart was filled with the amount of creative energy the space held. Even the restrooms were laced with stickers, posters, calling tags, etc. It felt like sitting inside the mind of an artist. The Skillman team did an amazing job picking the space for the session. 

When asked about our experiences as youth artists in our city, some expressed sentiments of community and love for our craft while others barely knew artistry was an option for them until they were lucky enough to stumble across opportunities. Unfortunately, it is common for youth to be unaware of creative spaces in their area as art isn’t always accessible. Once we get our foot in the door of the art community, it’s like we’ve fallen into the rabbit hole. We’re cascaded with opportunities to hone our artistry, connect with like-minded individuals, and showcase our work through word-of-mouth freelance jobs or youth-centered arts programs.  

Finding that door, or another after, is the hard part.  

Lack of information paired with little to no access to resources makes pursuing art as anything beyond a hobby difficult. Most of us, including Brandon Johnson aka Chef B, a culinary artist who provided a mouth-watering spread of food for the session, mentioned the struggles of turning our craft into a career without proper support. So many of us have little to no understanding of LLCs, owning the rights to our work, bookkeeping, building an audience/clientele, and how to accurately price our art to avoid being underpaid and undervalued.  

The truth is that youth artists are often taken advantage of under the guise of being acknowledged and gaining experience. We are often expected to drive and add to culture despite not being taught how to advocate for ourselves and navigate the wider world around us. We feel the need to accept every opportunity that is presented to us as we fear there aren’t many opportunities out there. Some of us have become “go-to” artists. This might sound like a positive thing, but it can also mean being overworked and volunteered for projects/performances we did not personally agree to. This leads to artists experiencing burnout and feeling commodified. 

So when Angelique Power asked a question many of us have never been asked, the table fell into silence.  

What do we need to keep creating?   

Some of us need a break after being undervalued and upholding expectations from those who aren’t in our shoes. Some of us need access to supplies and creative spaces as well as information on the business side of artistry. Artists from ages 19 to 21 need access to organizations, residencies, and programs that allow them to refine their artistic skills once they age out of traditional youth programs. Most importantly, we all need genuine support from our communities and the organizations within them.  

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