Ferguson, Missouri, was on everyone’s mind recently at a holiday preview at Atlas, Art 180’s art center for teens. One volunteer, a black, 30-something video producer, began talking with a donor, an older white man, about the tragedy and riots. Inspired by the richness of their conversation, the two committed to continuing it over a monthly breakfast at Perly’s.
“I don’t know where else that could have happened,” says Marlene Paul, Art 180’s executive director. Relationships like this are born out of the Atlas space in Jackson Ward all the time, she says: “This space is accessible, inviting and comfortable to people of all backgrounds. We’re helping young people find their voices and this space is about that mission.”
The community-focused arts group spent its first five years at Fulton Hill Studios before moving to Plan Zero for nine years. Its after-school art programs were held at middle schools and community organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club and William Byrd House.
Last year, after fundraising efforts, Art 180 bought a street-level condo in Jackson Ward to house its offices and establish a youth-oriented art gallery and studio in the arts district. It’s possible to have dedicated display space for monthlong art exhibitions as well as offer artistic programming for high-school students, most of whom aren’t inclined to hang around after school or go somewhere with younger children for the sake of making art.
Murals are Art 180’s most visible presence, but reflect only a small part of its output. Programs offered at Atlas are myriad, as wide-ranging as poetry, interpretive dance, video-game design, urban planning, fashion design and documentary filmmaking.
Open High School student Savannah Peters, 14, got involved solely because her mother insisted. “Now I really can’t live without Art 180,” she says. “It definitely brought out my talents. I want my talents to be my career: dancing, photography and writing.”
Students who demonstrate leadership skills are invited to be part of the teen leadership council and act as ambassadors for Art 180, doing outreach as part of the street team and speaking in front of donors and to groups. They were interviewed by Virginia Commonwealth University for input on the Institute for Contemporary Art, created art for the Christmas Mother’s thank-you cards and participated in the TEDx youth day program. They curate and hang each month’s exhibition while acting as hosts to visitors during First Fridays.
“I really love the creative environment and atmosphere here,” says Sydney Vick, 16, of Richmond Community High School. She first got involved through an Art 180 writing class offered at William Byrd Community House and went on to become a member of the teen leadership group. “We’re like a family. It’s just good vibes.”
Last summer, a group of teens worked with the Conciliation Project to write and produce a play. “The subjects they chose and the direction they took the play in — how power is expressed — challenged the audience,” Art 180’s program manager Michael Guedri says. “They took on heavy subjects and it was eye-opening to some of the parents. The great thing was the conversations people were having right after the play.”
“It’s my art home,” says Open High student Chris Bolling, 15, who was inspired to join when he saw his older brothers painting a mural in his neighborhood. “I love the people here. For me not to come in is strange. It changed my life and molded me into who I am today.”
Art 180 expects to serve 500 young people in 2015 — 350 through the community programs and another 150 at Atlas, which is open 2:30-5:30 p.m. during the week. November was its first global exhibition featuring art by HIV-positive children from Kenya. Closer to home, the alternative high school a few blocks away will be sending GED students to take a class on plaster mold casting this semester. This month there will be an exhibition of paintings on vintage windows and autobiographical ’zines.
Peters says she owes her own confidence to Art 180. “It showed me I was better than I thought I was,” she says. S
Art 180’s Atlas Gallery, 114 W. Marshall St., holds an opening Jan. 9. Call 233-4180 or visit art180.org.