Undaunted by the pandemic, Mint dances into new projects and draws in more creative youthThe Nonprofit Journal Project

One 16-year-old artist who adores architecture developed exceptional skills printing lithographs. Another youth, an introvert who usually feels socially awkward, learned to love working with children on arts and crafts. And a third sold more than $650 of her art and art prints - in one day. 

Each of them donned masks and spent time learning, earning, growing and giving back with Mint Artists Guild during the pandemic.

I co-founded Mint in 2016 to create programs and open opportunities for emerging young artists in Detroit, and to give back creatively and generously. Despite the global pandemic, Mint continues to grow, developing new approaches and adapting our programs so our young artists keep growing and gaining skills. 

Mint stands on three legs in the nonprofit world: youth development, entrepreneurial and career training (what some call workforce development) and arts and culture.  The third seems obvious to anyone who has seen paintings or lithographs by Mint Artists. And the first two are essential and inspiring.

Yet Mint doesn’t just stand; it jogs and dances into new projects and priorities. The pandemic, and my awareness that the needs of Detroit children were increasing, encouraged us to move faster and reach more creative youth and children.  I often shouted “Leap and the net will appear” to myself or some of our youth. 

 Thankfully, several foundations including W.K. Kellogg and Skillman and individual donors threw nets and funding at Mint. Even with that increased support, our budget does not top $100,000.

Within weeks of schools going virtual in March 2020, we launched activity kits for at-home creative play. We gave away 5,500 of them to children, families and teachers, thanks to partners Arts & Scraps and Brilliant Detroit. Mint also turned several of our business of art workshops virtual, and created and weekly artist check-ins using chalk art, poetry and other techniques to encourage sharing and creativity.  

We developed an online summer jobs program and hired a record number of youth artists, in partnership with GDYT, the city of Detroit’s youth summer jobs program. After our ‘Lucky 13’ artists hired in 2020, Mint brought on 16 youth artists and four marketing and event interns in 2021.

By mid-June 2020, we announced our Metro Detroit Youth Arts Competition for at-home inspiration and started working with the Detroit Pistons Neighbors initiative on arts and crafts programs for children in Detroit parks. 

Did I mention we did all this with one year-round staff person - me - and a group of dedicated volunteers? Almost all our volunteers are artists, teachers, youth or entrepreneurs dealing with their own radically changed circumstances from Covid-19. 

Mint Artists Guild has a history of volunteers making things happen. For our first two years, in 2016 and 2017, only our youth visual artists earned any money, through the Mint summer jobs program or by selling their art with Mint at art fairs and pop-ups.   

Mint works with talented visual artists ages 14 to 22 to teach career and entrepreneurial skills, introduce artists working in a variety of careers and give back through community art activities and our Paint Detroit with Generosity initiative.

That initiative has created and gifted original paintings to more than 75 nonprofits, and shared the paintings in exhibits during the pandemic at the Durfee Innovation Society campus and the Detroit Historical Museum.  We also shared our art at pandemic-inspired Art in Windows, which placed works by Mint artists at independent Black- and female-owned businesses to encourage people to shop there.

Our young artists have painted from their bedrooms or basements the past two years, yet were connected through our weekly online artists talks and career workshops. We sent home soup and snacks along with paints and canvases. Our youth received stress- relief tips along with advanced painting techniques. And we met up, masked and carefully, outdoors in Detroit’s Palmer Park to connect and paint together.

We are hopeful because of the work and projects and partnerships we developed during the pandemic. This year, we will hire more youth and hope for more in-person time during the summer. We worry about the cumulative effects of the pandemic on our youth and their well-being. And we know the importance art and creative projects can play in good health.

We are inspired by seeing our youth paint meaningful and timely paintings of heroes and social justice and the joy of everyday life, even in a pandemic.  

Justice and joy are continuing themes in our creative work. We will continue to offer masks to children so they may paint or draw with us in Detroit parks, and to listen to and chase ideas that connect us with our community.  And we continue to use and adapt our strategic plan, developed by volunteers in the pandemic’s first six months.

Creativity really does flourish in challenging times, like Mint growing all over the city and the state.

Vickie Elmer is a co-founder and the executive director at Mint Artist Guild in Detroit. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.