By Marlene Paul, co-founder and executive director
Since ART 180 is celebrating our 20th anniversary this year (heck yeah, all year!), our communications manager Sydni asked me to write a blog post about our history and growth. It’s still funny to me that we even have a communications manager, since that used to be my job. Everything used to be my job.
Communications actually plays a big part in ART 180’s origin story. My co-founder Kathleen and I had degrees and backgrounds in the field, and we thought they could be used for the greater good—the shared dream of idealistic 30-year-olds! We loved art and viewed it a powerful tool to communicate. We wondered what could happen if young people who were marginalized were given the chance to express themselves through different art forms, projects that pushed them to share their thoughts, feelings and ideas; if they had an outlet and a way to “talk” about what was going on in their lives, directly or indirectly through a paintbrush or microphone.
We imagined a space where young people could create, and where others could learn about them through their art. We thought the young artists would feel validated if adults took time to view their work, and hoped any preconceived notions the adults held might shift and they’d begin to believe these youth were capable—and worthy—of more. But we didn’t have a space, or kids. Or money. What we did have was a commitment to the work, a deep belief that it was worthwhile, and the hutzpah to make it happen.
Clueless about nonprofits, we spent six months researching Richmond, affirming the need, and defining our best place. We assembled a group of people we liked to help us shape our idea, and to contribute their own ideas and connections. We gathered around Kathleen’s dining room table eating Goldfish and Peanut M&M’s and drinking Amstel Lights (I know..) imagining what we could do, and how to do it. Within two months we’d drafted our mission and completed our first one-day project—a mural at The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club led by Charlie Connell, a steering committee member who today presides over our board of directors. We worked with a creative director (our boss at the time) to brainstorm our name, over wine at Mamma ‘Zu. This was a critical step; we wanted a name that sounded more like a movement than a charity, that young people would be proud to wear on a t-shirt.
After another couple of one-day events involving eager kids, elated volunteers, and spilled paint, we settled on a model of placing trained artists with community partners for multi-week programs. We’ve been doing that ever since.
A lot of other things have happened since, too.
Kathleen moved away on June 8, 2001, a sad day for ART 180 and especially for me. I drove directly from the airport where I put her on a plane to our office to finish a grant proposal. We already had our first employee—someone with fundraising experience who could help me keep the ship afloat—and this grant would let us add a program position. Thankfully, I had a board chair who also stepped up as a surrogate partner through the transition. Every step of the way, the right person has appeared at the right time to guide us into the next chapter. I’ve never pretended that I know what I’m doing, only that I know what we need. And that I trust my instincts.
We’ve weathered world events (9/11 happened during a board meeting), two recessions, one office break-in, staff turnover (and over and over), financial uncertainty, city bureaucracy, and a community-wide kerfuffle when a Monument Avenue resident had our permit revoked for an art exhibit in the median…and his neighbors stepped up to host them in their own yards. That one got us on the front page of the paper five days running, and on NPR!
I’ve seen friendships and business partnerships and romantic relationships form, and babies born—including my own daughter in 2007, on the day of our annual fundraiser, Art Karma. From two of us sharing one salary and one role, to 10 employees, three contractors, and dozens of part-time artists, the staff has evolved and expanded. So has our programming: to the original partner-based model throughout the community we added programs in our own youth art center in 2013, and a program targeting the school-to-prison pipeline in 2015.
Like the kids in ART 180 programs, we’re all born creative. Most of us just distance ourselves from that core as we distance ourselves from childhood. Kathleen and I believed that if we could encourage young people to harness their creativity, and keep it flowing, there was no limit to what it could do for them—in all areas of their lives. ART 180 has been my form of creative expression. I’m grateful I’ve been able to do this work for two decades.
Photo credit: Hoot Media Photography