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Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor   
January 2018

Arts program offers free art classes to local youngsters

TArtFeature_1he importance of art and music education has long been documented,

with studies showing time after time that children exposed to such programs out-perform in fields outside the cultural arts, including math and science. And time after time, budget cuts to public schools gut these programs.

U.S. public libraries have been a free source of information and learning, starting as early as the 18th century. Not only were they vehicles to educate a new nation, but they also grew into community centers, where people could congregate for social activities.

Libraries have also been targeted when cities look to save money -- there seems to be enough funding for sports stadiums, but little left over for these critical neighborhood hubs.

A grassroots pilot program, a one-man-show really, tried to meld these two vital resources. In 2011 Adarsh Alphons founded ProjectArt in Harlem to bring free arts education to underprivileged kids in free local libraries. Seven years on, through donations, grants, volunteer work, and other contributions, ProjectArt has been planted in seven cities, including Miami.

Launched locally in 2016 in five libraries, ProjectArt Miami expanded to eight libraries this past year, with a permanent director in Chana Budgazad Sheldon, formerly the director of Locust Projects.

Initially a basic educational outreach program, where volunteer artists would teach children after school, ProjectArt now has a multi-pronged mission. Not only do kids get access to art making and practice, but the libraries themselves become safe spaces for those with nowhere else to go when school lets out but no parent is at home.

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Parents are encouraged to join as well, exposing them to what libraries have to offer, from books to computers to quiet retreats from a sometimes stressful and hostile environment.

And in 2017, ProjectArt Miami named an artist-in-residence for each of the libraries, where the artist teaches three classes a week and has use of the library as a studio. The artists are expected to interact with the community in which the library is situated, to get to know what the children’s lives that they are teaching are like.

It is one of those ground-up experiments that seem to cater more precisely to the needs of children, to a specific neighborhood, and to broadening the arts to an everyman, street level. And the process of selecting libraries and artists seems effectively deliberate and strategic, avoiding the pitfalls of many startup nonprofits.

The libraries are chosen by need, says Sheldon, in areas where children are not getting arts education in the schools, and where other options are not available. “We are where we can fill in that void in that void,” says Sheldon. Also, “we are focused on walking distance, maybe a half mile [that kids] can walk to the library. We want it truly to be a partnership with the neighborhood.”

Therefore, every in-library arts program will be unique, crafted by the artist-in-residence in response to the needs of that locality.

ArtFeature_3One of the libraries added in 2017 was Homestead. “There is a lot of parent involvement there,” says Sheldon. “The classes are filled, and there is a wait list.” (The classes are divided by age group -- 4-7, 8-12, and 14-17 -- although most of the students are in the 4-7 group, according to Sheldon.) “The parents bring their kids to the classes in Homestead.”

Further north at the Little River library, things are a little different. There is a shelter next door, and kids come in on their own, and are often withdrawn. Sheldon says the classes at Little River also serve as a way to socialize children, to get them to interact with each other and to encourage them to learn to express themselves through art.

The Homestead library has an outdoor area, while the Edison Center in Little Haiti is basically “one room under renovation,” she says, highlighting another example of how programming has to differ from branch to branch.

The specific needs and realities of the various locations underscore the importance of the role of the artist-in-residence, who is also the art teacher.

The artists go through an interview process in which a panel of judges sift through the reasons why the artist wants the residency, and how well they may fit in -- or want to fit in. For the 2017-2018 residency, the jurors were artist Adler Guerrier, gallery director Nina Johnson, and PAMM curator René Morales.

So who passed muster this academic year? Blair Butterfield is one, the artist-in-residence at the Homestead branch. She was born near the Okefenokee Swamp on the Florida-Georgia border, and runs an agricultural community support program that teaches gardening techniques to children. Easy to see how she would fit in with the more rural southern realm of Miami-Dade, with its high percentage of farmworkers and close proximity to the Everglades.

ArtFeature_4Marcel Doucet was born in Haiti but graduated from New World School of the Arts, and later the Maryland Institute College, with a B.F.A. in ceramics and a minor in creative writing and illustration. He is at Arcola Lakes library, an area west of El Portal with a large Caribbean population. At Little River, where an emphasis has been placed on nurturing children in life skills as well as introducing them to art, Rosa Naday Garmendia is the artist in residence, someone who has blended art making with social activism throughout her career.

At Culmer Overtown library, in one of Miami’s most poverty-stricken communities, Austrian-born Maria Theresa Barbist is the teacher. She is a performance artist who translates traumatic experiences into performative stories and sculptural adaptations. According to Sheldon, she uses the books and even the wooden tables in the library as her “studio,” and creates work that can relate to the students here.

Biscayne Times contributor and artist Stuart Sheldon is also among the ProjectArt teachers (see “Library Art Like You’ve Never Seen,” October 2017). His classes are held at the Edison Center library in Little Haiti, across the street from Edison High School.

“We want the residencies to be a personal journey,” says program director Chana Budgazad Sheldon. “We want them to spend time in the community, and ideally get to know the neighborhood. We want them to see what kids see when walking to school. What excites them? That will help them create their lesson plan.” In the case of Barbist, the kids she teaches might see a lot of blight, but also works of the great outsider Miami artist Purvis Young.

Promoting the development of artists and children’s artistic education should not obscure the other element, of upholding and advancing the place that libraries can play in community cohesion.

To that end, Sheldon -- who has also been appointed adviser for the national ProjectArt program -- says that none of this would have happened without the support of Miami-Dade Library system. “They have been amazing, working with us every step of the way, from library to library.”

 

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