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A promising future for Virginia's professional artists

People recording in a studio
Shaban Athuman
Virginia-based poet Nikki Giovanni works on her latest project with University of Hartford music educator Javon Jackson. (Photo: Shaban R. Athuman)

Angie Miles and Samantha Willis reported this story

America is set to graduate another class of college students this spring. These young professionals are embarking on a new frontier when it comes to the world of work. The pandemic has shifted both employer needs and worker expectations significantly at a time when virtually every profession is already undergoing rapid technological change. Few fields are experiencing change as quickly or dramatically as those related to the arts. 

In Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University anticipates about 500 students will graduate from the School of the Arts, which is consistently ranked one of the top public arts schools in the country. Those choosing to work in this field will join the ranks of 2.5 million professional artists in America. These painters, illustrators, musicians, writers and designers earn their living with the creative works of their hands and hearts. And research shows, the stereotype of the “starving artist” may be less relevant today than ever before, with a future that is ripe with opportunities for working artists. 

Author, educator and career consultant Yvonne Thayer, says that many of the traditional jobs people have worked for decades or even centuries will go the way of automation in the coming years, while arts careers will likely see growth.  

“The arts … have the opportunity to see an explosion of opportunities for them across all kinds of job sectors. For example, I remember a few years ago when I was working with some folks in cybersecurity. And they talked about needing people who could write, who could get up and perform, basically, in front of a group,” Thayer says. “They had the people who could do the software development and the hard skills. They needed some other things. So, I think you’ll see that there’ll be more opportunities because we’re just going to keep expanding and expanding our creativity as the technology allows that.” 

Thayer’s prediction is consistent with the forecasts of other labor experts. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs in fine arts, in particular, will grow by 14%over the next decade. That’s above average for all jobs and is driven, in part, by the digital age, which now includes more individuals and businesses focused on content creation as well as branding and imaging for public perception. 

Before professional jargon included words like “content creators”, “influencers” or “metaverse” (a predicted reality that allows everyone to experience a 3D virtual worldscape through the internet), artists have been finding varying degrees of success in the traditional practice of their respective crafts. For Virginia, that has translated into thousands of artists who have hailed from the state, relocated to the state or become affiliated with a university in the state forging successful careers as performers, writers, designers or fine artists. Musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, Wayne Newton, Bruce Hornsby, June Carter Cash, Jason Mraz and Pharrell are all from Virginia. Actors like Warren Beatty, Tim Reid, Sandra Bullock, Rob Lowe, Wanda Sykes and Jason Sudeikis are also native Virginians.  

Apart from performers in popular culture, the Old Dominion has also been home to countless successful, more traditional artists, such as prolific painters P. Buckley Moss and Georgia O’Keeffe, macabre suspense writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe, and more modern best-selling writers like Tom Wolfe, David Baldacci and Kwame Alexander.  

One Virginia-based artist who has earned wide acclaim is Nikki Giovanni, a native of Tennessee and a founder of America’s Black Arts Movement, who has served for more than 30 years as a Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. In the 1960’s, Giovanni’s writing reflected a nation splintered by racism and poverty. Today, her poetry still addresses social problems and encourages political empowerment. 

“I wrote a poem called ' Vote. ' … I talk about it a lot it’s very important. It’s important to vote even if you don’t like any of the people. Write your grandmother’s name in. … don’t let them silence you. That’s what’s important,” she says.

Giovanni’s latest project, The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni, is with celebrated tenor saxophonist and University of Hartford music educator Javon Jackson. The album of spirituals – Black sacred music – evokes the pain that enslaved people experienced and the powerful messages infused in their music. Giovanni says, If you can imagine your child being snatched from you and sold…and you still found a way to sing or you still found a way to laugh…” 

Project collaborator Jackson says of one of the album’s songs, “The poem, on ‘Wade in the Water,’ the last phrase is ‘I’ve got a mind to build a new world, want to play.’ … We’re still today saying, let’s build a new world. Each one of us has our own calling to try to make a new world.” 

The pair speak to both an urgent need and a profound possibility of making the future brighter, by relying on the wisdom that can be gleaned from the past – but only for those who choose to look there.  

Giovanni says, “I think that the kids today…I think that their refusal to listen to the spirituals is one of the great losses in their lives. … because you have to find something to rely on. And we’re back to ‘Jesus, keep me near the cross,’ and ‘why would you say something like that?’ … I’m sure Mary didn’t have fun. I’m sure she didn’t say to John, ‘oh, let’s go and watch him die’. So when you’re saying, ‘Jesus, keep me near the cross,’ you’re asking for the strength to go forward.” 

Although considered an activist for her forthright commentary on social issues through her poetry and prose, Giovanni describes herself as a teller of truth, which she says all artists are and must be. “I’m not a preacher,” she says. “I’m just a poet.”  

As she reflects on the great artists she has known personally, some of those were her teachers and mentors: poets Robert Hayden and Arna Bontemps as well as illustrator Aaron Douglas were among the instructors when she studied at Fisk University. Giovanni considers history as evidence supporting her view: being an artist is being beholden to telling the truth. 

Giovanni’s career represents an uncommon degree of professional success and cultural significance to which newer artists might aspire. But whether or not they reach that same level of public acclaim or commercial appeal, it appears they will be able to make a living while making art. In “ Career Anxiety: Guidance Through Tough Times,” consultant Thayer with co-authors Saul Carliner and Margaret Driscoll make the case that most workers, not only artists, will need to adjust to the idea of having more than one job. Currently, about 16% of Americans have done “gig work,” like delivering food via an online platform, driving for Uber or Lyft, or engaging in freelance content creation.  

There are lots of opportunities for you to work as an independent contractor in this country. In fact, over the next few years, we expect that 60% of all people working will have more than one job,” Thayer says. “[Many workers will] have to have a sideline job. They’ll need that to live the way they choose to live,” especially with the country’s inflation rate at a 40-year high.  

She says it’s as important as ever for all workers to think carefully about how much they need to earn to be comfortable and what benefits are important to them. She also says that even though more choices are opening for those who choose careers as creatives, it still takes time to become established. That means gig work might be important for artists, in particular, while building their preferred careers. That might mean finding freelance jobs through networking or online, possibly on gig sites like Fivver and Upwork. 

Illustrator and graphic designer Scott DuBar is a Charlottesville-based VCUarts graduate who is living the freelance life. He’s a regular contributor to magazines, children’s books and educational publications with drawings that feature children, animals, and natural settings. His images are colorful, whimsical and often quite playful. He carries a sketch book with him often and draws when something captures his attention. DuBar is literally drawing on his past, saying he learned to love cartoons as a child, inspired by his father Jules DuBar’s depression-era doodling.  

”He created his own neighborhood newspaper,” DuBar recalls about his dad. “He would write stories and interview people in the neighborhood and he would do the comic strips as well. He still had a few of those and that was really, when I was a kid, that really blew my mind.” 

DuBar is one of the millions earning a living as an artist, and he’s been doing so for more than a decade. The secret to making it as a professional artist, Dubar says, is a little luck and a lot of perseverance. “It’s a bit of both. You know, you kind of make your own luck in a way. If you put in the effort… and you have a real interest, a sustained interest…’cause, having a career in art means getting rejected a lot,” he says with a chuckle borne of years of experience.  

A career in art also means finding balance between commissioned work and personal passion projects, says street artist and graphic designer Assil Diab, who works under the pseudonym Sudalove. Like DuBar, she is an alumna of VCUarts. From her former homebase in Doha, Qatar, she says, “The challenge is, when do you know when to be a fully professional artist, and when do you want to do some community work, and how do you make the shift between both, because something has to give.” 

Diab’s art raises awareness about global issues and has often put her life in danger during Sudan’s deadly political protests. She says, “It is so easy for them to just shoot you while you’re painting, and that’s that, for participating in the protest.” Diab’s street murals depict the faces of people protesting government tyranny, people who sometimes sacrificed their lives for their cause. Painting these people was a direct act of resistance that Diab knew could prove deadly.  

As she created the portraits using spray paint, Diab says, “My back was toward the streets. And so I had no idea what's going on behind me. There's people that are working with me that were my eyes and ears. I have to think about their safety as well, as well as the safety of the martyrs' families.” 

She says that beyond pursuing professional success, the role of working artists should be to create, inspire and provoke. “Everybody can do some sort of art, right? Everybody can…art is art, and everybody has something to be creative at. But not everybody can use that as a responsibility to spread awareness on what’s going on in the world right now.” Diab says whether it’s painting murals or raising awareness and funds for a cause, artists can make a meaningful contribution to social change. 

In May, Diab plans to return to VCU’s campus to create a mural on the School of the Arts’ Theresa Pollak Building. She will be the first Black woman artist to create such work at VCU.  She will arrive at her alma mater in the same month as graduation and the emergence of hundreds of new artists into the world of professional art. It is an example of art history influencing the present reality of art, just as centuries-old spirituals influence the current musical creations of Nikki Giovanni and Javon Jackson, and just as a father’s fascination with drawing helped lead Scott DuBar to a life as an illustrator. As a contemporary, trailblazing artist, Diab is helping to set the tone for future artists, those ready to meet the challenges and to answer the opportunities waiting for workers equipped with pen and paint in hand, and with visions of a new, more beautiful world in mind. 

For those interested in learning about fine artists affiliated with particular states, including Virginia, discover more with this interactive map created by the Smithsonian. You may also find information on professional artists in Virginia, grant opportunities for working artists and arts events statewide through the Virginia Commission for the Arts

Disclosure: Angie Miles is an occasional collaborator with one of the artists featured in this article. The projects are not directly related to VPM and that artistic relationship has no bearing on the inclusion in this article. 

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.