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Why Embedding an Artist in Your Nonprofit Is a Sound Investment

Janel Young and neighborhood children in Pittsburgh paint the first art basketball court in the city. It is named The Homecourt Advantage Project (2019).

Since 2020, I’ve served as the Community Artist in Residence at UrbanKind Institute, a nonprofit organization in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We focus on eliminating barriers to families thriving in over-burdened and under-resourced communities. I spend time painting murals, creating visual art, and collaborating with people locally and nationally. People often ask me to envision my dream job. When they do, I don’t hesitate. I tell them I’ve found it. Through my work, I’ve been able to move beyond art as only beautification to embracing it as a creative tool, internally with UrbanKind and externally with community partners, to help others communicate ideas, experiences, and solutions.

The Heroes on the Horizon (2021) 3-D mural was inspired by local residents and students. It was designed by Janel Young and is in Bakery Square Pittsburgh.

People also ask me to describe an artist residency – a valid question. The title, “Artist in Residence,” can be many things. It may mean an artist is implementing programming (e.g., with students at a local school). It can be used to describe a body of work at a restaurant or community center. It also can be a formal retreat with lodging and goals to create new work in a controlled environment. An artist residency should provide opportunities to stretch their creativity, thinking, and practice. It helps artists build out their portfolios, resources, and networks. Why? Because the artist’s contribution to society is invaluable: Conjuring richer lives, creating space for critical conversations, demanding accurate storytelling, and reflecting real experiences.

Although philanthropy, business, and government support the arts, there are still questions about what resources artists need to be successful. Organizations nationwide want to see artists thrive, but they may be unsure how to support in sustainable ways. UrbanKind has taken a new approach to this challenge of supporting local artists: Hiring me, a visual artist, as a full-time staff member. Together, we are learning as we go. We’ve gained tangible and intangible benefits – all of which have been exciting so far.

Janel Young stands next to Avalanche (2021), on vinyl, during an artist talk in Aliquippa.

One of my most celebrated works this past year was the digital piece “Avalanche.” Avalanche wouldn’t exist without my experience working at UrbanKind and the resulting conversations and collaboration with colleagues and community leaders. The artwork addresses the layered challenges that marginalized communities face during the pandemic. This includes global COVID-19 complications, police brutality, national social unrest, plus unhealthy water and air quality in Pittsburgh. Artistic details throughout this single piece allude to a snowballing effect. The imagery was influenced by observations, research reports, and data I found relevant through my residency. Two established art nonprofits in Pittsburgh awarded Avalanche with a public display in the city.

The concept of working with artists beyond a one-off capacity is abstract to some people. Since the return on investment looks a bit different than your typical analytics report, understanding and pitching an Artist in Residence position might be a challenge. So, let’s say you want to help – that you see value in how art and artists enrich communities. Let’s explore four mutual benefits of an Artist in Residence position, as implemented by UrbanKind.

Looking through a different lens.
Artists often have a different perspective on challenges and problem solving. Furthermore, they have a different approach to communicating problems to others, which I believe is one of the most underutilized skills an artist possesses. Artists can speak a different language that can grab an audience’s attention, or even shift their thinking.

Carving out space for an artist within an organization diversifies the employer’s viewpoint and makes room for the artist’s voice. Every artist will have his, her, or their creative process, and it should be valued as part of the work, considered part of the job. In most cases, the research, connecting web of ideas, networking, and conversations are unseen, and therefore, unrecognized as part of the process to develop a tangible product. This reinforces a production-focused approach, putting creativity in jeopardy.

In exchange for a new way of thinking, seeing, and creating, comes another benefit.

Providing stability.
The millennial generation wants to nix the “starving artist” mentality. However, the best way to do that seems unclear. A stable source of income related to progression in the arts is a game changer. Additionally, this opportunity should be a substantial length of time – more than the typical three or six months. Arguably, the most important part of this act is that it should not be tied to a specific outcome. (Someone responsible for your employer’s Key Performance Indicators just gasped). Yes, developing goals between the employer and the artist is imperative. But leaving room for the “end result” to evolve is the key to mutual success.

Janel Young’s Six feet apART (2020) COVID-response installation is seen in downtown Pittsburgh. It features her Black Girl Magic series.

This may seem simplistic or scary depending on your vantage point, but let’s take a deeper dive. For someone in the business of ideating, receiving a stable paycheck permits more fluid and organic thoughts, ideas, solutions. It frees up the imagination by limiting stress factors. On behalf of many creatives, I can say it allows artists room and liberty to take on projects they love and have more substance. It also can provide opportunities for growth and experimentation, versus settling for a quick, necessary buck. This sentiment also can be applied to the continuous chasing of micro-grants, putting artists in a position to fight for their livelihoods and hang on to philanthropists’ generosity from month to month. It is not enough.

Building beyond today.
Anyone with experience in the “gig economy” understands the barriers to certain milestones that weigh slightly less on those with a salary position. This includes home ownership, financial planning, and affordable health care. It’s no secret that you need to prove financial consistency to win over the necessary trust to obtain a house or car, in the traditional way. But consider this: Say an artist is doing relatively well, locking in large-scale projects with up to $100,000 budgets, but due to the nature of grant cycles and application processes, predicting the next project, its timing, and pay – with the certainty a financial institution requires – is a challenge. Whether the artist books two gigs or 10 for the year, banks are not willing to take the risk. This is where the stability of being a resident artist comes in. This position provides a sense of reliability in the real world. Artists, especially in Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, need this type of structural support to create longevity in their careers.

Showing you are forward-thinking.

T-shirts were designed by the Young for the “Trust Trees” campaign team to galvanize and summarize the initiative to consider, grow, and protect trees in communities.

When you engage an artist from the beginning stages of a project, engraining them into the fabric of your initiatives, versus adding them as an afterthought, you may be surprised at how much an artist can elevate your idea. Now, imagine scaling this to a series of projects with the same artist. A deeper understanding of your values can now be translated to the world through eye-catching, thought-provoking, beautifying, informative art. And there will be an artist out there better at his, her, or their life’s work because of it.

The value, stability, and innovation presented works together to create an environment for artists to thrive, use their gifts in memorable ways, and improve their quality of life through their work. Thriving artists are part of an ecosystem and help communities become better, stronger, healthier, and more equitable. I hope to see more long-term and permanent structures for artist residencies as a viable path forward for organizations and artists, alike.

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About the Author
Janel Young is a Pittsburgh native, painter, muralist, and community advocate. Young’s style of bright colors, masterful blending, and geometric inspiration has been recognized locally and internationally, from New York City to Sydney, Australia. Notable commissions include, Yahoo!, Verizon Media, the U.S. Open Tennis Association, and the Pittsburgh Arts Festival. She is a former Walmart Fellow.

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