Day Jobs, Second Careers, and Side Hustles: Considering Black Artists’ Creative Self-Support

In a structurally exclusionary art world, Black artists have long had to be creative in funding their artistic practices. They have worked as teachers; porters; curators; public intellectuals; manufacturers; historians; waiters; and social workers; among countless other jobs and professions. These “day jobs” — by which we mean, paid work artists perform outside their artistic practices — have generatively informed some artists’ careers, influencing their aesthetic output. For others, they have been a means to an end. The Blanton Museum of Art’s 2023 exhibition “Day Jobs” indicates a growing interest in artists’ secondary employment, but there has yet to be sustained investigation into this issue’s racial valences.

This panel considers the ways in which Black artists’ day jobs have shaped their art-making, and impacted its reception. How have these roles influenced the legibility and critical treatment of their work, from the perspectives of their peers; period critics; or art historians today? How has multitasking, while often a necessity of survival, productively challenged assumptions about modern artists’ singular focus or insularity from social, political, and economic concerns? To what extent can we “see” these additional jobs, expertises, or fluencies within artworks themselves—or must our art historical attention shift in order to consider them?

 Session Convenors:

Clare Ittner, University of California, Berkeley

 Madeleine Harrison, The Courtauld Institute of Art


Frances Varley, The Courtauld Institute of Art

William H. Dorsey’s Philadelphia Collection: Archive, Activism, Art

William H. Dorsey (1837-1913) compiled a corpus of over 500 newspaper clipping scrapbooks documenting Black history – these scrapbooks were used as source material by W.E.B. Du Bois’ in the preparation of The Philadelphia Negro. The collector was also a trained artist. He travelled to Washington D.C. and New York City to seek patronage; he sat on the boards of exhibitions and learned societies, and exhibited at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition (New Orleans, 1884) and the Industrial Exposition by the Colored Race (Philadelphia, 1889.) Dorsey self-described as an artist in city directories and was bolstered by inherited generational wealth – he was part of what Du Bois described as Philadelphia’s ‘Black aristocracy.’1

Despite this, Dorsey was never able to live from the earnings of his artmaking and appears to have stopped painting altogether by the mid-1880s, instead turning his attention to his scrapbook archive and his role as voluntary custodian of the American Negro Historical Society. He supported himself, his family, and his interests through work as a messenger to the Mayor and as a turnkey at Philadelphia’s Central Police Station. This paper therefore considers the uneasy intersection of class and race in the late-nineteenth-century United States. It questions how Dorsey’s cultural elitism functioned in relation to financial precarity and racial marginalisation and how this, cumulatively, informed his creative output. It argues for Dorsey and his collection as embodying a slippage in the contested binaries of professional and amateur, formal and vernacular, elite and popular.

Colton Klein, Yale University

Park Work: Minnie Evans and Environmental Racism in the US South

Born in 1892 in the southeastern United States near Wilmington, North Carolina, the Black self-taught artist Minnie Evans held day jobs in parks for the majority of her ninety-five- year life. She worked at Wilmington’s Pembroke Park between 1916–1948 and Airlie Gardens from 1948–1974. These environments provided a lifelong source of income and artistic inspiration for Evans, who produced her first work of art at Pembroke Park in 1930. Primarily working in graphite and crayon on paper, Evans ultimately created hundreds of layered and mostly abstracted ecological motifs derived from flora and fauna observed while on the job. During her employment at Airlie Gardens, she earned sixteen cents an hour collecting admission fees from an eight-foot by five-foot wooden gatehouse seven days a week from morning until dusk. Evans supplemented these low wages by selling drawings made while multitasking during long shifts to visitors for fifty cents each. Underacknowledged in current scholarship, a small and uncharacteristic subset of Evans’ prolific output includes site-specific landscapes of both Pembroke Park and Airlie Gardens, as well as nearby Greenfield Lake and Wrightsville Beach. These four locations were among the only outdoor recreation spaces legally available to Wilmington’s Black community for much of the twentieth century. I argue that these place-based compositions were directly inspired by Evans’ day job as a park worker and should be critically understood as encoded signifiers to local histories of environmental and racial injustice in the US South—a radical form of protest during the Jim Crow Era.

Sandra Adu, Loughborough University

The Position of Black Graphic Designers in Britain: Aspirations, Perceptions, and Impacts

The research entitled “The Position of Black Graphic Designers In Britain: Aspirations, Perceptions and Impacts ” examines the experiences and challenges encountered by black graphic designers within the United Kingdom. The study draws insights from comprehensive interviews conducted with 15 black graphic designers employed in the industry.

The investigation reveals the existence of enduring systemic barriers encountered by black graphic designers, despite incremental progress in terms of diversity and inclusion. These barriers encompass underrepresentation, discrimination, and a notable absence of career advancement opportunities. Consequently, black designers face limitations in terms of professional growth and development.

Furthermore, the research sheds light on the implications of these challenges on the aspirations and perceptions of black graphic designers. The findings depict the emergence of well-founded doubts concerning career prospects and the feasibility of advancing within the industry due to entrenched racial biases.

The study underscores the necessity for enhanced representation and inclusivity of black designers within the industry, in order to ensure the recognition and appreciation of their contributions and perspectives. Additionally, the findings emphasize the importance of fostering a supportive environment that cultivates diversity and equity, thereby providing equal opportunities for success and career progression to designers, regardless of their racial background.

Christa Noel Robbins, University of Virginia

William T. Williams: ‘the Time of the Mind in the Middle of the Day’

In this paper I discuss the anti-institutional stance assumed by the African American painter William T. Williams as both a topic of inquiry in his practice and a social framework within which he worked.

Williams’s was a central voice that helped to complicate the definition and institutional framing of Black art in the 1960s and 1970s—he participated in the 1969 symposium “Black Artists in America,” was among fifteen artists to withdraw from the 1971 survey “Contemporary Black Artists in America,” and helped to found the Artist-in-Residence program at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Despite this role central role there has never been a scholarly study dedicated to his career—an oversight I am currently correcting in a book-length study of the artist. The lack of scholarly attention is in part due to Williams’s decision not to seek commercial representation after his primary dealer closed his gallery in 1971. Williams’s turn away from commercial institutions was grounded in his refusal to allow a predominantly white art world to frame his practice. Without commercial representation, Williams was free to experiment in painting at a rapid rate, producing hundreds of paintings that were only seen through the artist’s personal network of friends and colleagues. After introducing Williams as self- consciously responsive to the institutional framing of Black art, I discuss how he was able to maintain his practice due to two factors: his role as a professor at Brooklyn College and his access to a robust network of Black artists working in similarly extra-institutional circumstances.

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