The He(ART) of a City

YoungArts hopes to foster—and keep in touch with—the next wave of artistic genius, one prodigious teen at a time.

Young Arts Olufunmilayo Sofola

2018 YoungArts winner in dance, Olufunmilayo Sofola.

For any notable cosmopolitan city to thrive and bring in both national and international visitors, a key element must exist: art. And without the talented individuals who paint the murals, sing the ballads, create the films, contort their bodies, and give us the poems, stories, and books we hunger for, there would be no heartbeat and no soul to a place. Among the thousands of foundations supporting the arts in the US, the National YoungArts Foundations in Miami, Florida, stands out in a stacked crowd for the way it deeply understands and embraces its young talent.

“The organization’s mission is to identify and nurture the most promising young artists in the country at the critical stages in their lives as artists,” said Lauren Snelling, senior director of Alumni Programming at YoungArts. “Our work is incredibly important because we not only offer a springboard and direct pipeline to mentors for high-school-aged artists, but also maintain relationships with alumni over decades continuing to provide professional opportunities and connections that helps foster their artistic development.”

As a city that sometimes feels like it’s transitioning at lightning speed, it’s comforting to see the cultural groundwork of Miami become more prolific and firmly rooted. YoungArts was first established in 1981 by Lin and Ted Arison. Every year it receives thousands of applications for its signature competition that recognizes young emerging artists from across the US (ages 15 to 18 or those in 10th to 12th grades) in 10 distinct disciplines: cinematic arts, classical music, dance, design arts, jazz, photography, theater, visual arts, voice, and writing.

And while the pool the judges choose from blindly (applicants are only known as a number, except in the case of dance and music, which requires live performances) is extremely young, it is also extremely gifted, and offers remarkable insight into the talented range of the future artists of our time. For those hoping to become winners, they must apply by October of each year. If chosen, winners receive an incredible amount support, including financial awards of up to $10,000, professional development in their chosen fields, and educational experiences working with renowned mentors such as Debbie Allen, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rebecca Walker, Frank Gehry, Jeff Koons, Wynton Marsalis, and Salman Rushdie, just to name a few—plus performance and exhibition opportunities at leading cultural institutions such as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The competition is indeed fierce, but for those who make it through and impress the judges, the results can be life-altering and illuminating. For instance, during YoungArts Week in January, another one of the signature programs, winners across the 10 disciplines participate in master classes and workshops with leaders in their fields, a rarity for any artists, no matter their age or location. Throughout the week, finalists can also have their work performed for audiences through dance, voice, film screenings at New World Center, writers’ readings in the YoungArts Jewel Box, and more, giving audiences a diverse sampling of the oftentimes groundbreaking work that can’t be seen anywhere else. It’s an exciting and bustling time, and attendees often witness previously unseen feats of accomplishments.

Artist Dylan Etienne Ramsay

Design arts and visual arts finalist 2017, Dylan Etienne-Ramsay, performing at the exhibition opening.

The main headquarters and regional program are located in Miami, but there are also regionals in New York and Los Angeles. Winners have the opportunity to become a Presidential Scholar in the Arts, an honor that recognizes the nation’s top high school seniors, who are nominated by YoungArts and ultimately chosen by the president of the United States.

Of course, it’s not all about the individual artist, but also, how they interact with each other and the community at large. “When I came to YoungArts, a lot of my focus was to take advantage of the collaboration aspects,” said Lisa Leone, vice president of Artistic Programs, who is herself a YoungArts winner. She’s also a photographer, writer, cinematographer, and director and now oversees campus programming, alumni relations, education, and the development and implementation of the signature programs. “I thought, yes, we’ll do the traditional focus, but let’s step it up and bring a real multidisciplinary focus as well.”

The program that came from this thinking is called In Process, an artist residency dedicated to interdisciplinary collaboration between two alumni at important stages in their careers, turning them on at a young age to collaborate and work with diverse artists and in contrasting fields. Oftentimes, these collaborations can open doors, lead to new opportunities, and help develop interpersonal skills, all necessary to making it as a successful artist with an eye on longevity.

Besides opportunities to collaborate, learn from experts, and showcase their art, there’s also much to be said for the space in which winners learn, grow, and form a community. In the early days of YoungArts, it operated out of a bank building­—it was better than nothing, but having such a fine-tuned arts program dedicated to creative thinking didn’t quite fit into the vibe of the financial district. All that changed, however, in 2012, when YoungArts acquired the landmark Bacardi Tower (known as The Tower), completed in 1963, and The Jewel Box, located directly behind The Tower and finished in 1973.

Not only do the buildings embody a distinctly tropical modernism with bright colors and intricate designs, both structures were granted historic designation by the City of Miami Preservation Board in 2009. The neighborhood where YoungArts now makes its home is also much more conducive to nurturing artists. Located at the nexus of Wynwood, Edgewater, and the Arts & Entertainment District, it’s a hotbed of inspiration and cultural growth, from the art on the walls and mangroves on the bay, to the thrift stores tucked away on side streets. At its new campus, YoungArts has expanded from its core program of intensive week-long residencies for teenage artists in multiple disciplines in Miami, New York, and Los Angeles, to present outdoor performances, discussions, workshops, and exhibits.

“We are in a planning phase for activity and growth on the YoungArts campus in Miami, which will be dedicated to the alumni; supporting their efforts to create and develop new work,” said Snelling. “We’ve also recently launched a digital version of the campus, which we call YoungArts Post. This is a customized, portal where alumni from all disciplines and years can reconnect, share works in progress for feedback and collaboration, announce presentations. It also provides YoungArts with a platform for making available a large number of unique and valuable resources and opportunities that originate with us or from our institutional partners such as Sundance or American Ballet Theater and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These are partner institutions YoungArts has worked with for many years and who seek the diversity and caliber of artists within our alumni community.”

Musician Esther Yu

2018 YoungArts winner in classical music, Esther Yu.

Snelling is the latest addition to the overall broader leadership shift at YoungArts, and she has already begun work to further expand the organization’s scope in several ways: by cultivating a more active, present, and connected alumni community; authoring new programs and amplifying existing initiatives for the thousands of alumni that already exist; fostering and solidifying significant national partnerships; as well as building deeper relationships with local partner organizations.

Snelling joined the foundation in August 2018, bringing with her a global perspective and collaborative spirit from previous roles at OZ Arts, Park Avenue Armory in New York, and the Melbourne International Arts Festival. As founding artistic director of OZ Arts in Nashville, Tennessee, Snelling led the organization to critical acclaim in its first five years, and is credited with changing the cultural landscape of the city. “My experiences in Melbourne, New York, and Nashville feel like they have all been in preparation for this role at YoungArts,” she said. “I believe strongly that this community of astonishing artists, and the passionate YoungArts board and staff, are poised to institute clear and useful paths to support the creation of important work and social commentary from the next generation of artists that will impact a nationwide audience, and beyond.”

According to Snelling, “almost universally, artists of any discipline and any age or geography face some of the same challenges. These tend to not only include identifying sources for financial support, but also securing space in which to make their work, and having the liberty to dedicate appropriate time for themselves and their colleagues to develop that work.”

Additionally, besides the more universal challenges, each artistic discipline has its own unique hurdles to contend with. Dancers, for example, face obstacles that a writer may not. Their careers are a lot shorter for the most part and their training begins as young children, which means that oftentimes they’re not prepared for other kinds of work. On the other hand, writers and fine artists are expected more and more these days to get MFAs and BFAs, which means more time spent in school and more debt to pay back.

“For almost 40 years, YoungArts has annually identified hundreds of artists. For the past five to 10 years, we have taken significant and dedicated steps to reconnect with these artists, and to provide them with opportunities and resources, specifically targeted toward filling the gaps of need,” said Snelling. “Social media has been a tremendous asset to us in terms of reconnecting with our alumni, and we are expanding that reach for maximum awareness and engagement in preparation for our 40th anniversary celebration. I am thrilled to step into this role at YoungArts and carry the baton forward in working to engage, connect, and serve our alumni at a time when the creative minds and spirits of artists across generations may just inspire the optimism our world needs.”

With all that’s happening behind the scenes at YoungArts, it’s no wonder that it keeps itself extremely busy. Each year its offerings, shows, and performances only seem to grow in scope, including additional opportunities for fellowships and awards for both winners and alumni. “One thing we’re not well known for, but is incredible, is that we give a couple hundred thousand dollars away to our winners, and in the past years we’ve developed a number of scholarships for our alumni,” said Leone. “One of them is through Max Mara, a wonderful partner of ours, called the Max Mara Young Visionary Award, which is a $10,000 prize.”

Other notable examples of expansion include a new partnership with Aimco, which will offer six visual arts alumni the chance to create site-specific installations for the public over the next two years, along with activations and art talks. The In Process focus for 2018-19 will still be collaboration, but also highlighting YoungArts’ almost 40-year history by focusing on intergenerational work. In January, it will host the annual YoungArts Backyard Ball; in February, YoungArts Miami; in March, YoungArts LA; and in April, YoungArts New York.

It’s easy to get discouraged to enter the art world, and then to stay in it, and YoungArts wants to make sure that not only does it foster the next young artistic greats, but that it also prepares them for the future, one that’s filled with uncertainty, rejection, and struggles galore. By working on themselves as individuals and also within groups and partnerships, the winners will only become stronger and more well-rounded. Being an artist implicitly means seeing, hearing, and experiencing the world in a distinct way, and having a tribe is the only way to navigate those sometimes lonely waters. For artists, YoungArts acts like a second home, and audiences are lucky to get a peek behind the curtain, fortunate to have a way to stay current on what’s new in the art world, and what the rest of the world should look out for.

[© Photo 1 & 2 courtesy of Gesi Schilling, Photo 3 courtesy of Jason Koerner]

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