In the fall of 2011, ART 180 mounted an exhibition exploring the self-perceptions of 25 rising fifth- and sixth-graders. The 8-foot-tall panels were seen by thousands around our city and beyond, and it started conversations about how we see (or don’t see) the truth in each other.
It was a time when we all were still recovering from the collective trauma that has since been named The Great Recession. And, these 11-year-olds were bold enough to show our community the beauty, commitment, creativity, and power inside themselves. I’m sure they were concerned about how they could be perceived by the broader community with which they probably had little experience.
That same fall, I joined the ART 180 family and board, just as awareness of the exhibition was growing.
By the spring of 2012, we faced controversy over the audacity of placing “What Do You Stand For?” on Monument Avenue amongst mansions and Confederate statues. We were thrust into an unexpected spotlight when pushback from a disgruntled resident led to a revoking of the city permit that allowed the panels to be placed in the avenue’s median.
As a newbie to the board it was a moment to see the mettle of ART 180’s leadership in action. It was also a fantastic opportunity to learn about the commitment of our many supporters who stood with us, including friends on Monument Avenue who “adopted” panels and placed them in their yards.
As an artist myself, I had seen many exhibitions and been involved with youth arts for more than a decade. I had also been involved in arts programs that were challenged by their communities. But, moving to Richmond in 2008, I had seen nothing like the statues along Monument Avenue. They were confusing. They seemed retrograde and hostile … an affront to the realities of a large part of the city’s residents, to my family, and to most of the people that I’d met in RVA leading up to that moment of our exhibition being cancelled.
The response of ART 180’s supporters was exhilarating and powerful. It demonstrated that the statues stood in a space that was itself conflicted and dealing with its own sense of what it stood for. It also demonstrated that there were plenty of people who believed in both ART 180’s work to uplift Richmond’s creative youth and, more importantly, in those courageous young people.
Nine years on, as I’m stepping down from leading the ART 180 board, I’ve been reflecting on the idea of “What Do You Stand For?” and on the spectacular moment we are in now.
Twenty-twenty has been a remarkable and tough year … a year of reckoning. But a lot happened between 2011 and today that has demonstrated the effectiveness of the ART 180 model of creative youth development. It’s a model that touches kids on a one-to-one basis, gets to know them and what they’re experiencing deeply, and meets them where they are in terms of supporting them and elevating their voices.
In the ensuing years, ART 180 opened the doors of Atlas, its youth arts center, which has now hosted more than 50 exhibitions and tens of thousands of visitors to view our young people’s work.
ART 180 built an annual cohort of high-schoolers known as the Teen Leadership Council that gives creative young people in our area a safe space where they can grow together, create together, and build community together. This has led to uncountable intimate moments where our teens share their ideas and processes with a wide spectrum of people from across our city.
ART 180 helped build the Performing Statistics program to raise awareness and motivate change around the incarceration of mostly black and brown youth. The program now operates as a national driver to help change youth incarceration laws all over the country.
ART 180 has deepened the way it works with youth to address the trauma they experience and help ensure they achieve the outcomes they want for themselves.
And, those 11-year olds? Well, they are now 20-year olds. Adults! Some of them are raising their voices during the recent Black Lives Matters protests and inspiring more change through their work. It has all come full circle to Monument Avenue. In 2020, we see a city and country that are struggling to come to terms with what it stands for.
This fall, ART 180 begins to engage a new cohort of sixth graders (and others). Now, however, on top of their everyday challenges and the daily traumas of racial, gender, and social injustices, they are dealing with COVID 19, unrest and violence in our community, and remote learning programs that are fraught with disparities. They will need someone to help them raise their voices about what they stand for, to help them grow toward the 20-year-olds they want to become. ART 180 is working to stand for them.
Over my time on the board, ART 180 has received an outpouring of support for its work. To the donors who gave $50 and those who gave more, I say thank you! Your support has helped ART 180 create a lasting legacy of impact. And, though your continued giving, ART 180 can work to uplift creative youth across RVA, helping them to realize the truth in their own voices, to share those truths unapologetically, and to engage our whole community in growing as a result.
But, as we saw in 2011, their voices aren’t enough. We are a community, and it takes our collective courage and collaborative work to overcome our most profound challenges. We couldn’t afford to hide from this hard work then and, going forward, we definitely can’t. Our future is at stake.
I look forward to seeing you around Atlas in 2021 and beyond.
ART 180 Immediate Past President