Art, says Alison Scott-Williams, “is the language of the eye, the language of the tongue. We have a lot of schools in New York City that are multilingual, with a new immigrant population who are learning English as they arrive in this country. Studio in a School’s work helps to bridge that language gap.”
Scott-Williams is president of Studio in a School New York City, a non-profit organization that engages professional artists to provide visual arts instruction to students from preschool through high school. To date, Studio has brought the creativity, comprehension, and confidence that the visual arts provide to the lives of more than a million students in more than 1,000 of the city’s public schools. Many of those students live in struggling communities. And Christie’s New York has been showcasing the work of these young people through a series of gallery and online exhibitions.
Studio in a School was founded in 1977 by Agnes Gund, philanthropist and president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, when New York—dubbed “Fear City” thanks to an increase in crime—suffered a crippling fiscal crisis during which art education was culled in the city’s schools. But social justice advocate Gund championed art as critical for a young person’s development, and so Studio in a School was born. Studio (as it is often called) trained artists as teachers, and then offered them to schools.
With support from public agencies, private-sector benefactors, art sales, and fundraising events, Studio offers schools a variety of programs from a 14-week residency to a long-term residency of five consecutive years. “We work particularly with schools that are in dire need,” says Scott-Williams. “We serve schools in some of the most underserved communities and with a high percentage of students who live at or below the federal poverty line for the United States.
Scott-Williams recently took the reins from Tom Cahill, who has worked with Studio in a School since 1979. He is now president of Studio Institute, set up in 2016 to replicate Studio on a national level, as well as giving teens and college students arts work experience and partnering with cultural and community organizations in Boston, Cleveland, Memphis, Newark, Philadelphia, Providence, and New York City.
Cahill seconds the idea that art is a conduit to life skills that extend way beyond the classroom. “Creating art requires thought and directional language that kids that age are trying to put together in their head,” he says. “The more they talk, the more they increase their thinking and make personal connections. It’s not just fun, it’s a learning experience and early experiences can lead to a lifelong engagement in arts and culture.”
Jennifer Hall, Senior Vice President, Regional Director at Christie’s New York, agrees. “Art is at the core of all we do at Christie’s. While we view art through a somewhat different lens than Studio in a School, we share the passionate belief that the creative process nourishes self-expression, confidence, sense of identity, and sense of community. It is an honor and joy to highlight Studio’s critical mission of improving the well-being, critical thinking, imagination, and inherent talent of its students.”
New York artist instructor Robin Holder has seen for herself the powerful and profound impact that art can have on a child. “What you’re doing as an artist is inviting and unlocking a reservoir of feeling and comprehensions,” she explains, going on to say that she might, for example, “talk to a little group of first graders, about their neighborhoods, their friends, and neighbors,” and a child might get emotional because of something that has happened in their world. “These are the realities,” she observes.
Holder has held part-time residences with Studio in a School since 1987 and has taught across New York, from Queens and the Bronx, to Manhattan. Her own powerful works center around the themes of identity and inequality, concepts that she invites her students to explore.
“Having grown up in New York City, which is supposed to be a diverse, varied place, I realized that we’re really very separated by educational level and by class economics even more than race. Even more than religion. Even more than national origin. So, with my students, I really strive to motivate them to ask questions, to research, to talk among each other, to explore.”
And it’s not just a one-way street. The artists themselves truly enjoy teaching the kids. “The magic lies in the fact that children are able to share things with our artists that make them see their work in a new framework,” says Scott-Williams. Such is Studio’s reputation today that its Open Studio events have an impressive roll call of visiting artists—everyone from Jeff Koons and Fred Wilson to Sarah Sze and Glenn Ligon.
One of the students who has come full circle with Studio in a School is Rosanna Victorio. Now in her early 20s, she first attended one of their arts programs at kindergarten, and it inspired her so much, she took Studio Institute’s Teen Apprentice Program (TAP) where high school students learn how to teach art to children in New York City summer camps.
In 2020, due to school closures, the teens taught collage, drawing, and painting to children via Zoom. And having earned her bachelor of fine arts in illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Victorio has stepped up to work as a Studio arts mentor, to provide virtual training for the TAP students and pass on her own knowledge from the program.
“One of my first experiences with art was through Studio at P.S. 75 school in Manhattan,” Victorio remembers. “Art has always been a therapy for me. It was art-making in the classroom that helped me articulate my feelings. And that’s something that I take to everyday life, be it working or talking with friends.” She now has ambitions to become a teaching artist herself. “That’s hopefully in the works, because I love Studio, I love what they do.”
As Victorio mentions, the work of Studio is proving resilient in the face of the pandemic. “We stopped for maybe six weeks between March and April 2020 to recalibrate,” says Scott-Williams. “And in that time, both sides of our organization created digital online learning tutorials.” Cahill continues: “Getting back to the direct experience would be wonderful, but our colleagues and the artists we work with have been incredibly resourceful and committed to not dropping the things we had on our plate.”
As for exhibitions of the kids’ work, they have been virtual due to the pandemic. But Cahill is looking forward to the day the work can be showcased in real life again. “Christie’s exhibitions get huge city-wide engagement in a part of the city that everyone should know,” he says.
Last fall’s Christie’s exhibition Pictures of Us: Portraits by the Children of New York City showcased 30 self-portraits of pupils and celebrates the diversity of New York’s neighborhoods. “The portraits in this exhibition provide a powerful lens into the lives of our students,” says Scott-Williams. “The nuances of emotion from pathos to joy is a reminder of their sensitivity and brilliance. The resulting images, through the elements of shape, line, and color, tell us more than a photo ever could. Together, these works form a collective portrait of promise for the next generation.”
To aid Studio in a School’s philanthropic work, visit studioinaschool.org/support
Banner image: A selection of portraits from the Christie’s Pictures of Us: Portraits by the Children of New York City online exhibition