Many West Virginia artists and creatives do not succeed. They receive training to develop an advanced skill set either by following a path of apprenticeships, going through our state’s exemplary collegiate system or by undergoing a self-guided course of research and local classes, and they essentially become small-scale manufacturers. They attempt to build a business, package their products into a memorable brand and bring them to market—and often fail.
These creative people represent an entrepreneurial opportunity to drive commerce in West Virginia if we’re able to identify and capture their talent and help guide the successful growth of their businesses. Artists and creative entrepreneurs are not just dotted here and there across our state. There are thousands of professionals living in all 55 counties, from early-careers to established creatives.
The romantic notion of the starving artist seeking a wealthy patron to underwrite their livelihood hidden in faraway places like New York City has long been dead. We now know, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, our nation’s arts and culture production is valued at $704.2 billion, or 4.23 percent of GDP. This is a greater contribution than the tourism, agriculture or transportation sectors.
From the resurgence of arts and crafts culture in the 1970s—which was part of a movement that brought many creative, capable people to West Virginia and led to celebrated cultural businesses such as Mountain Stage—to the rapid-fire growth of successful self-made talent that became possible with the rise of the internet, artists and creatives are, and have been for some time now, business entrepreneurs.
Yet, until recent years, these creative people have been expected to navigate the path to business success using their own trial and error approaches. These entrepreneurs are eager to learn how to successfully derive income from work they love to do and be connected to people who have knowledge to share. The team at the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts created the Emerging Artist Fellowship to escalate the learning and connecting process necessary to keep highly talented creative people in West Virginia and to save early career entrepreneurs from the business pitfalls their predecessors have learned to overcome.
The fellowship program uses a coordinated process to identify the best emerging talent in the arts and creative fields in West Virginia and connect that pool of talent to one another and to the financial and human resources that will be necessary for these burgeoning entrepreneurs to succeed in their fields. Partnering with groups like Generation West Virginia and individual professional artists from across the state, the fellows gain the business savvy and personal network that is a necessary foundation for career success.
A team of six professional artists and arts business-people evaluated applications from 17 candidates this year. These candidates were put forward from administrators at West Virginia colleges and universities who responded to an open call requesting nominees who created exemplary work and showed an aptitude for professional success. The candidates were narrowed down to West Virginia’s first Emerging Artist Fellows: graphic designer and illustrator Rosalie Haizlett of West Liberty University and potter Hannah Lenhart of Fairmont State University.
Over the course of their one-year term, Haizlett and Lenhart will be provided with business training to build the foundation for their newly forming creative enterprises and plugged in to a network of successful, professional artists from across the state.
“I was very nervous about staying in West Virginia because I felt like there weren’t any opportunities and there weren’t any chances for me to succeed here,” says Lenhart. “Being a part of this fellowship, I’ve learned that people do care, and people are wanting to build a community here. I will have the foundation as a support moving forward.”
To watch videos featuring the first Emerging Artist Fellows and learn more about their work, visit tamarackfoundation.org/support-our-work.
Emma Pepper, a native of Charleston, WV, received her bachelor’s degree in political science from West Virginia University. She returned to her home state after building her career in Washington, D.C., and Berkeley, CA. Pepper is the program director for the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts. Prior to her work with the foundation, she worked as an arts-focused marketing and public relations professional, gallery director, creative consulting agency owner, design agency manager, freelance writer and AmeriCorps VISTA. In addition to her work at the foundation, Pepper serves on the marketing committee for Charleston Main Streets. She also pursues her own art and is a published writer and essayist.