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Can advertising tactics spawn social change in Richmond?

Change of Art


"Mostly, I want to be a leader," Brittany Waddy explains, leaning in close to her collage. She smoothes down the edges of the words and magazine images glued onto a foam-board cutout of her body. All around her in this Blackwell Elementary School classroom, about a dozen other fifth-graders are munching on dried-apple snacks as they snip and glue alongside their mentors, putting finishing touches on their mixed-media sculpture project. The mentors - all student volunteers from the Adcenter, VCU's graduate program in advertising - are all young enough to look like older siblings, to blend in, to hang out and talk.

What is a hero? That's what they have spent 12 weeks discussing and debating, each week identifying heroic qualities they might themselves possess, and combing magazines, newspapers and their own photo albums to find the right images. Finally, they are close to having a concrete statement that will be open to the public beginning June 1 at Artspace.

Brittany taps two words: heart and soul. "I picked those because good leaders have heart and soul," she says firmly.

And maybe a bit of Madison Avenue savvy, if the leadership behind Art 180 is any example.

Established just over three years ago by two disillusioned advertising women, Art 180 is blipping huge on the radar screen, electrifying Richmond's nonprofit scene with its smart blend of arts, advocacy and business sense. Working with other nonprofits, it's a key player behind Blackwell's sculpture project, behind the publication of kids' poetry collections, behind huge billboard projects designed by teens, behind a whole lot of powerful art done by kids in some of Richmond's toughest neighborhoods.

"Their ability to partner with other agencies and their ability to work through the maze of corporate life in Richmond is astounding," explains Susan Brown Davis, senior program officer at The Community Foundation, which has awarded the group two grants totaling $72,000. "They have a cadre of volunteers working all over the city and unbelievable connections. We are so impressed with them."

Brown isn't the only one impressed. Talk to funders, community activists, program directors, kids, artists - the message is pretty much the same. Art 180 is a smart, gutsy organization that has figured out how to use the arts to give kids a voice about what's going on around them.

Not bad for an organization launched by people with absolutely no experience in the nonprofit world and only a vague notion of wanting to use their ad skills to help people be heard.

In the great scheme of the universe, just how important is selling Nike sneakers?

That's what Kathleen Lane, an advertising copywriter, wanted to know. After working abroad and in Richmond on even the most high-profile accounts like Coca-Cola and Nike, she was left with the horrifying question: So what? It's a question the quiet 29-year-old kicked around a lot at Work, then a small (and tersely named) ad agency in Richmond. It was there she met Marlene Paul, a young communications executive also aching to spark something more in Richmond than a consumer demand for designer labels.

"I kept trying to figure her out, to see if she was just another typical ad type," explains Lane of her first tentative conversations with Paul.

Trying to categorize either one of these two would have been — and certainly still is — tough to do. Advertising women with a strong Peace Corp-type gene are odd enough. But other qualities seem as oddly placed. They seem shy and soft-spoken, but are also blessed with wills of steel. Mostly, though, both are given to conceptualizing big ideas, asking "what if," just plain dreaming. A friendship would have been the most natural outcome. But true to their nature, they looked beyond the obvious to something bigger and stronger.

Talking over a few beers, they decided that, clearly, there ought to be something more to their life's work than making money for a company. Several drinks, informal focus groups (they invited smart people over to Lane's kitchen), and hours of research later, the two had the beginnings of a business plan that would make Zig Ziegler proud. Art 180 was born.

"I sometimes think that Kathleen and I sacrificed our friendship to start Art 180," says Paul, who seems almost synchronized with Lane when it comes to talking about the organization and its accomplishments. "It's rare that you find yourself at a point in life to follow a dream. Even more rare to find the right person to do it with."

Almost from the start, Art 180 has walked to its own drummer, with Paul and Lane immediately opting against using Art 180 to fix the world for others. Too many programs — however well intentioned — says Paul, try to identify and fix a problem.

Instead, the two decided to have Art 180 clear the way for kids to participate in conversations about their own communities. What better — and fun and non-threatening — way to express kids' ideas about solutions than through art?

"We didn't want it to be about us turning them around 180 degrees, but more about them having the power to turn themselves around 180 degrees. We wanted to work with kids to show them how to effect personal and community change, how they could affect their surroundings," she explains.

For the average participant, that kind of power is a surprise. A kid may come in thinking he's going to just paint and fill some time. But it's really a slim-to-none chance of that happening. Instead, the kids start on a journey that begins with the assumption that everybody is an artist and that every artist has the power to communicate.

For Lamont Smith, a 17-year-old John Marshall High School student, the message has come as a surprise.

"I notice that I'm artistic," he says, even though he admits he'd really like to pursue criminal law as a career. "You should never doubt you can be that way. I was doing my work, and I said, 'Hold on! Look at this I'm doing!'"

Lamont, one of eight children, tries to spend his time in as many community programs as he can. "I don't like to sit on the street. There's a whole lot of positive things to do if you just get to know them, usually through school," he says.

About 80 children are served by Art 180 at six different sites run by existing agencies already serving kids, agencies such as Weed and Seed Inc, St. Joseph's Villa or the Friends Association for Children. Art 180 comes to the table with professional artists — many of whom volunteer outright — who build weekly art experiences that go heavy on self-reflection and communication. Typically, it's 12 weeks in spring, 12 weeks in fall. Along the way, Lane and Paul bring along an interesting group of bedfellows to support the projects: paper companies, upscale furniture stores, advertising agencies, art galleries, area businesses, City Council, community groups — everyone with an interest in keeping conversations about life in Richmond rich, open, and representative of everybody who lives here. Including kids.

What emerges is a lot of eyepopping wisdom. Wishing they didn't have a crackhead on their street corner? They create actual city billboards about it. Trying to figure out what they stand for? Self-portraits are one way to go. Almost all of the work ends up with a professional, ooh-let-me-see-that appeal. Whether it's a CD of children's poetry, a funky spiral-bound personal journal, or horses made out of coffee cans, the work that was so focused on artistic process and social issues still emerges as gorgeous, hopeful work rather than as tragic manifesto.

It's no magic, of course. Some days, the group chemistry is off, and the frustrations of personal situations make their way into the classroom. "I think sometimes the kids get tired, and then they get mad," explains Smith, who has done both poetry and visual-arts sessions with the group. "If one gets mad, it spoils the whole thing, you know how it is. But when everybody is clicking together, that's a good day."

The toughest hurdle volunteers face is making the kids understand that they are allowed to say the truth. If that sounds simple, think about, say, your feedback questionnaire for your boss. How candid were you? Cracking the doubt takes a lot of discussion about the difference between empty phrases so typical in media ("Just say no") and something that will hit the people like a fastball to the nose because it's so true.

But that's where art happens, according to Lane and Paul, and — more importantly — where change happens for both the kid making the art and the person admiring it. A good example is their bus project, which merged advertising with personal statement. Working with teens at Gilpin Court, high-school students worked with graduate students from the Adcenter to create messages for the sides of city buses. Once the kids truly believed that they weren't going to be censured for their thinking, ideas came pouring. Among the most memorable and provocative messages was "I am more than you make me to be," done by a hard-nosed 15-year-old who cried when she saw her words roll by on a bus.

Clearly, Art 180 has struck a chord with others who are sick of being called "at-risk" or "disadvantaged" — two terms Lane and Paul refuse to use.

"We value that they don't patronize the children in the community," says the Rev. Robert Dortch, executive director of Weed and Seed, an organization that tries to create healthier and safer communities in Whitcomb, Gilpin Court and Blackwell. Dortch, who now sits proudly on Art 180's board, thinks the approach helps break apart victim mentality.

"It is our hope that it changes kids in the long term. That the power kids get from seeing their thoughts and feelings manifested is a lasting power that helps them see how they can help their own community.

"We get comments all the time from people who work in social work or service, and they think this [arts] approach is so unusual," Lane says. "But we wouldn't have thought to have done it any other way."

As word of mouth continues to spread, Lane and Paul are trying (maybe less successfully these days) to keep the low-key profile each of them prefers. Art 180, they say, should be about the creative voice of the children they serve, not about public recognition for the founders. Still, their skill at getting messages out about the organization has proven to be a double-edged sword. There is now a big need to be disciplined about the kinds of projects they take on — not more than they can staff, design, nurture and promote. The learning curve has been steep, and people close to Art 180 worry that burnout is a risk.

"Well, actually, I don't have much trouble sleeping at night," jokes Paul over the phone one night. She estimates her work time at about 60 hours a week. "I just collapse into bed every night because I'm exhausted."

A more daunting task, though, will come in July when Paul is left to continue Art 180 without her co-founder. Lane and her husband (Jelly Helm, a professor at VCU and former group creative director for The Martin Agency) are expecting their first child and will be moving to Oregon in July.

Her replacement is local filmmaker James Parrish, widely known for establishing Flicker, the short-film and Super 8-film festival in Richmond, as well as for the Moving Image Co-op. Parrish brings 11 years of fund-raising and development experience as well as lots of personal work in oral history, music and film.

"This will be the first major transition for this organization," he concedes. But, he's worked as a program artist for Art 180 in the past and feels like the match will work.

For now, the three are hard at work looking at their mission statement, what they've accomplished so far, and how they can grow the organization into something less dependent on state, corporate and private grants, which right now account for more than half of their $243,000 annual budget. Their target is to use their creativity to find new ways to expand income. Ideas include product sales since they already sell a nifty reflection journal, among other publications, and getting individual donors onboard. They want all this without ever exploiting the children and their work.

None of what has happened with Art 180 is what Paul and Lane had imagined over their "after-work beers." Lane is glad for her ignorance.

"If we'd really known what would be involved we wouldn't have started Art 180. But now, we're so grateful we didn't know what was involved. And we're glad we relied on instinct, on what felt

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