Jason Yoon is the executive director of New Urban Arts, a nonprofit arts organization on Westminster Street that provides mentorship for high school students. This week, he spoke to the Independent about the past, present, and future of New Urban Arts.
Students from the New Urban Artists program
We'll start with the basics: tell me what New Urban Arts is really all about.
New Urban Arts is a community arts studio for emerging artists and high school students; we recruit mentors for free out-of-school programs during the school year and summer, in disciplines ranging from photography to fashion to silkscreening to poetry. Our mission is really to foster lifelong creative growth in the students.
I really want to emphasize that we're not a trade school, we're not training quote-unquote 'professional' artists. We're much more about unlocking people's imaginations.
There are serious structural barriers to people participating in arts and creative expression; on the most basic level, it's about the presence of arts in public schools. But even if you are in an art class, there's a system of certain kids being identified as 'good art students', or the kids who will be going to art schools, and the rest don't consider themselves creative. We want to challenge the idea of who and how people participate in a creative lifestyle, because we truly believe that it's fundamental for democracy.
You said that New Urban Arts is for "emerging artists" in addition to high-school kids. What does that mean - are there middle-school students or college-age kids involved?
Well, our core program, the youth mentorship program, is designed to serve high school students. We have had a couple middle schools contact us about integrating art programs into our schools, though. And in terms of older participants, we have an active alumni network of artists who come back to the studio.
How did New Urban Arts start?
It was founded out of Brown in 1997 by Tyler Denmead and Marcus Civin, who were both undergraduate seniors at the time. Marcus had been working with the Swearer Center and got a grant to launch a mentoring program; he recruited other Brown students to mentor and found ten to fifteen high school students, and they basically hung out and made art together. The original space was in Grace Church downtown; it moved to the Westminster space in 1998.
You always use the word 'mentor' rather than 'teach'. Why is the distinction important?
One summer, Tyler had an apprenticeship with a chef in a small town in the South of France. He had no cooking experience, but every day, the chef would tell him to make him some food, would say, "Try to prepare something for me by the end of the day." More often than not, apparently, it wasn't too successful. But something inside Tyler really clicked about being challenged and being creative, and the idea of a mentor-apprentice relationship. It really made him start to think about the use of mentors in education.
When did you become involved with New Urban Arts?
I was an artist mentor from 2000 to 2001. It was my senior year at RISD, and I was really looking to get out of the college bubble. I wanted to explore this dynamic city that I was living in, the diverse community, and I really wanted to work with young people. The problem I had with current outreach opportunities was that nothing afforded long-term connections with students. The connections seemed superficial. It'd be a one-time workshop at a library, or hanging out in the waiting room of a hospital with markers one afternoon. It all felt kind of temporal.
Then a friend of mine who I knew through RISD, Tamara Kaplan, said, "I think I've got a job for you." She was program director at New Urban Arts at the time. It turned out that for my work-study financial aid, I could work at New Urban Arts and have it count, so instead of stuffing envelopes, I could do something meaningful.
I applied, and was assigned four to six high school students, and I worked with them over the course of the year.
How'd it go?
At first, it was really teacher-centered. I was like the big bad art school student who was showing them all the things they had missed out on. After a few months, the program director sat me down and said, "Look, you really need to change your approach. You can't keep telling students what to do, not letting them make choices about what they want to do."
I told her that I thought they liked the structure, that they seemed to like me as the expert. And I was really comfortable in my role. But she basically replied, "Those students are told what to do every day in school. They're conditioned to being told what to do. That's what we're trying to undo here. So you need to chill out a little."
That hurt, the idea that I was stifling students' creativity and opportunities. So I decided to approach it differently. We had more open conversations and I let them develop the content. It was confusing and it was complicated, but it got to a point where it was much more interesting.
We tried sculpture, which was really hard for me because I was a painter. The second half of the year was basically me being uncomfortable, but that's sort of the idea. The process is just as transformative for the mentors as the students. For the artist mentors, it's really hard to shake the idea of being the teacher; there's a real messiah attitude. But the learning process is as much for mentors as students, if not more. It causes them to think differently about what young people are capable of.
Did you continue to be involved with New Urban Arts after that first year?
No, I graduated and then went back to New York City, which is where I'm from. I did seven years of arts management and arts education work. In June 2007, Tyler resigned and there was a national search for a new executive director. I was encouraged to apply, but I had a lot of doubts. I didn't want to leave New York, and I didn't know if I was ready for the role of executive director of a nonprofit, because that's a big responsibility.
But then I realized that what I'd been doing for the last seven years all involved young people and the arts, and that my life's mission was to continue to work with young people and build communities around arts.
The application process was pretty rigorous. I think I got interviewed by... Well, everyone. The board of directors, yes, but also the staff and students, there was a town-hall style meeting. I really feel honored to have gotten this job.
How had things changed since you'd been at New Urban Arts?
Well, when I was a mentor, the majority of mentors were Brown students. It felt like Brown territory, like a Brown outreach program. Now, there are still college students, but there are also working artists, doing this because they want to be connected to the city. These are people with day jobs looking for ways to be involved in their communities.
Over the years, the arts mentor positions have gotten much more competitive. Three years ago, we were having discussions about whether the current mentoring model was even sustainable because of how many people we would need, but the number of mentor applications has increased so much that the number of applications now far exceeds the number of mentor spots.
It really is a huge commitment, though. It's a year-long mentorship, and we don't take it lightly--arts students depend on them, we stress that. One of the really integral parts of New Urban Arts, actually, is that we let the students select the mentors. It's not me, it's not the board of directors; we have influence and try and guide the students, but it's a committee of twenty students which screens the applications. And that's something that I remind mentors of throughout the year when they get discouraged--I say look, the students picked you to be here.
Will the economic situation affect New Urban Arts at all?
In the short term, no. We've got three primary sources of funding, and one of them is a state contract with the Department of Education that won't expire for three years, so it helps a lot that a third of our funding is locked in for that long. Another quarter of our funding is private donations, and fortunately, Tyler was incredibly smart in building a strong donor pool. The thing about economic hard times, horrible though they are, is that they get people thinking about charitable giving more, about people in need. The third source is grants; I do anticipate foundations and corporations giving less, if even at all, in the future. There will be rough times ahead.
In terms of the resources you have, do you ever have to turn students away? How do students even find out about you guys in the first place?
In September, we do a lot of heavy recruiting at events like back-to-school celebrations. We also go directly to schools, especially the three closest schools, but we have kids representing ten different Providence public schools.
It's tricky¬≠--we have more applications than we can reasonably manage. We've got about 300 applications but only 150 kids that come regularly. But even if we can't match someone to a mentor, everyone who wants to is welcome to come, hang out, and make art. We really encourage kids just to drop in, to participate as they choose, because we accept that high school students can't always make a serious time commitment. It's not like, "If you don't come twice a week, you lose your spot!" Optimally, though, the students will come regularly; we encourage mentors to keep students involved as long as possible. Right now, we're at the maximum of the number of students we can handle.
Is there any possibility of expanding to more locations?
That's been a big topic of conversation in the past. The short answer is no. We're really protective of the community that we have, and we think that franchising could compromise the quality of the program we have now. That having been said, we have 100 artists who have served as mentors, all of whom have reported to us that they can't find a place like New Urban Arts to be a part of anywhere: New York, Atlanta, Portland. The question is, how do we extend our reach without being McDonalds? Because what I love about New Urban Arts--well, obviously I love a lot of things--is that it's a hub, it brings people together. It's people in a funky, crazy storefront gallery and studio deciding to build a community together.
GILLIAN BRASSIL B'12 would actually love stuffing envelopes for financial aid.