Inside Free Arts NYC’s Mission to Fight Poverty with Art

Free Arts brings art education to New York City's underserved communities.

Antwaun Sargent

Antwaun Sargent

Artist Richard Phillips and Free Arts NYC youth. All images courtesy of Free Arts NYC

Today, it's estimated that one in three children growing up in New York City lives in poverty. In 1997, recognizing how poverty restricts the possibility of disadvantaged children, Liz Hopfan, then a second grade teacher and volunteer for Free Arts LA, decided to bring the program to New York City. Over the last two decades, Free Arts NYC has brought free arts educations to over 30,000 children living in the city's underserved communities. Annually, the program currently serves 2,000 youths in upper Manhattan, the Bronx, and the city’s Lower East Side communities.

“We use art to help young people and families build the community, creativity, and problem solving skills, that serve as protective factors, to help buffer them against challenges that they run into," explains Free Arts NYC's Chief Program Officer Kai Fierle-Hedrick to The Creators Project. She adds, "Clearly there are a lot of systemic issues kids and families in our programs face. They struggle with income inequality, housing inequality, and educational inequality. Though, there are changes that need to happen, we are working in the now, and if that's their reality we [want] them to develop those skills of social and emotional coping to work through the challenges in their lives."  

TAP Teens visit Urbanus Female by U-Ram Choe at The Creators Project's Dumbo event in 2011.

The official mission of Free Arts NYC is to “provide underserved children and families with a unique combination of educational arts and mentoring programs that help them to foster the self-confidence and resiliency needed to realize their fullest potential,” according to the organization’s website. Free Arts NYC delivers on their mission by partnering with local community organizations to provide what Fierle-Hedrick calls “cradle-to-college” arts programming. Beginning with their Parents and Children Together with Art (PACT) program, Free Arts NYC offers children as young as three years old, as well as their parents, the opportunity to use art to enhance visual literacy, fine motor, problem solving, and communication skills. The long-term Arts Mentoring Program provides youths, ages six through 13, with regular opportunities to engage in visual arts projects at local community centers. Free Arts NYC also offers Museum Day programs throughout the city and pop-up art festivals that allow young children to explore artmaking.

Students in Free Arts NYC’s Teen Arts Program visit Origin by Untitled Visual Artists

Free Arts NYC’s Teen Arts Program provides students who are interested in a career in art access to museum and studio visits, arts internships, and artist-led one-on-one portfolio mentorships for students applying to arts high school or a Bachelors of Fine Art program. Last year, students in the program visited Dan Colen’s studio, where the artist spoke to them about his track to becoming a professional artist. In 2015, the teen artists also visited Rashid Johnson’s studio where the artist led a discussion about his practice. Artist Christopher Wool gave Free Arts NYC teens a personal tour of his 2013 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. Free Arts NYC’s current artist partners include Richard Phillips, Sara Foldenauer, Amy Park, Pablo Medina, and Paul Villinski.

Mentor & Mentee making art

In allowing students the opportunity to seriously engage art and a range of artmaking practices over the course of their childhoods, Free Arts NYC not only empowers students to develop the grit and character skills needed to negotiate poverty, it also exposes a diverse group of youths to the arts, an unintended effect being that Free Arts NYC kids are building visual vocabularies that make art more accessible. The children engage art in ways that could lead to careers that might ultimately help diversify the field.

A family views teen portfolios at the annual Art From the Heart exhibit at the Bronx Museum.

In the future Fierle-Hedrick wants to "continue to build really deep relationships with the communities we're in so we are doing that cradle-to-college work well.” She adds, "The arts are what makes us human. I think having the opportunity to live in that, to be human, and make something and put it out there in the world and say, 'I have this voice. Here it is.' And then have someone else look at it and receive it and validate that and say, 'Yes you do, and I'm listening to you.’ That's a really powerful experience that I think all young people should have."

For more information about Free Arts NYC, click here.


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