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Written by Stuart Sheldon, BT Contributor   
October 2017

ProjectArt brings free arts education to kids

FPix_FamilyMatters_10-17ew things instill me with more civic pride than walking into my local branch library (Lemon City) and emerging with a fresh stack of books for the kids and a couple of literary treats for my wife and me.

Libraries are sacred spaces, wholesome exemplars of a society dedicated to self-betterment. Yet anyone who’s visited a local branch lately knows it’s typically underutilized -- a few people here and there reading, browsing, or working at a computer.

Enter ProjectArt, a big idea to transform Miami’s public libraries by filling the void in public arts education and providing artists with compelling places to use as their studios -- a hat trick of creative triumph.

When he learned that nearly one-third of U.S. public schools lack even one full-time arts teacher, N.Y.-based artist Adarsh Alphons founded the nonprofit ProjectArt in Harlem in 2011. His vision: to provide free arts education for all underserved children in the U.S.

In 2015, CNN recognized Alphons with its Hero Honor for reforming the ways society invests in arts education. In an interview with the network, he recalled that he’d been expelled from grammar school in India as a youngster for doodling in every class, and told that he wouldn’t amount to much.

When his parents enrolled him in another school, he still got into trouble with his teachers, but his new principal took a different approach. He told the boy, “You know what? Just keep drawing in every class. Draw on the walls of each class. After you’ve finished the walls, go to the next class, draw on those walls. Paint the whole school.”

Within a few years, Alphons was accompanying other students from his school to meet Nelson Mandela and present him with a hand-drawn portrait. He also began to exhibit his work and painted portraits for Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II.

Your children needn’t paint for the pope, but the fact that they have a cost-free opportunity to romp around in their under-stimulated right brain is significant, particularly now, when some kids receive no arts education at all.

Miami is the latest addition to ProjectArt’s six major cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh), each providing groups of children safe spaces to immerse themselves in art, socialize, and prepare to enter a challenging society.

ProjectArt Miami begins with eight library branches. Having gone through the juried application process, I’m now artist in residence at the Edison Center Branch Library in Little Haiti at 531 NW 62nd St., across the street from Edison High School. This postage stamp of a space sits at the foot of an I-95 on-ramp; like most inner-city libraries, it feels undernourished. But it also feels poised, as though magic is waiting to happen.

As artist-in-residence for the academic year, I teach two classes Wednesday afternoons and one on Thursdays. Many of these children visit the library every day after school; they have nowhere else to go because their parents work.

Each artist builds his or her own lesson plans, along with the ProjectArt staff, overseen by ProjectArts Miami director and national adviser, Chana Budgazad Sheldon (full disclosure -- my sister-in-law).

In addition, the artists get to use the library as a studio each week. This allows the neighborhood patrons to get a glimpse into how artists work, while inserting the Americana-rich library experience into the artist’s own set of creative inputs. At the end of the year, ProjectArt will exhibit the works of the artists and children.

“I welcome ProjectArt to Miami-Dade County and commend this innovative arts education organization for its new, collaborative venture with Miami-Dade’s Public Library System,” notes Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez on the ProjectArt Miami website. “Teaching arts to children in our neighborhoods enhances their quality of life by providing them with invaluable opportunities to learn, grow, and excel.”

ProjectArt is truly changing how we promote and offer arts education. By harnessing a grassroots city infrastructure and using the national network of libraries, the project doesn’t spend one dime on real estate.

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael,” said Picasso, “but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Our children, given a modicum of guidance and left to their own devices, tap into their unique rhythm of creativity and discover things about themselves.

Through ProjectArt and one library branch at a time, we can reach the four million schoolkids who don’t receive art in school, and elevate hard-working local artists to boot.

To learn more, donate, or to enroll your child, check out the website ProjectArt.org, or contact the Miami program manager: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

Stuart Sheldon is an artist, author, and Miami native. Find his “Meet Your Makers” series in Art Loft on PBS. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram at @stuart_sheldon, and subscribe to his Fancy Nasty blog at stuartsheldon.com.

 

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