CityArts for Youth receives recognition for excellence in programming

President’s Committee selects local program as one of 14 award winners out of 350 applicants

Contributing Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2014

The award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities — presented by First Lady Michelle Obama — comprises $10,000 and a year of communications and developmental support.

Providence CityArts for Youth was honored Nov. 10 in Washington with a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award for being an outstanding after-school program for students who would not otherwise have access to quality art education. 

This year marked CityArts’ fourth attempt to secure the award in the past six years. In each of its past three attempts, CityArts placed as one of 50 finalists for the signature award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, said Barbara Wong, CityArts’ executive director.

The award recognizes programs that use the arts and humanities to boost “academic achievement, graduation rates and college enrollment” according to the organization’s website. This year, 14 organizations were honored out of 350 applicants, the Providence Journal reported.

As a winner, CityArts will receive $10,000 and a year of communications and developmental support from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities to help the program achieve its primary goals. First, CityArts wants to develop a visibility strategy, especially to document students’ social and emotional growth through exhibitions and evaluation, “so more people can understand the value of what arts can do,” Wong said. The organization hopes to foster support and audiences as well as launch an endowment campaign so the program can remain free, Wong added.

Sabrina Peralta, a CityArts student representative and a Nathanael Greene Middle School seventh-grader accepted the award on behalf of CityArts from First Lady Michelle Obama — receiving a hug, too, Peralta added. In addition to touring the White House, Peralta said she enjoyed meeting students from other art programs across the country.

To celebrate their award win and thank its supporters, CityArts teachers took more than 40 costumed and drumming students by bus last week to throw “flash-mob style parties” for staff, administrators and politicians at several partner sites, including Roger Williams Middle School, Providence City Hall and the Rhode Island School of Design, said Nika Gorini, CityArts’ program director. The first location the group visited was the home of CityArts founder Sister Ann Keefe, who listened from her porch as the group chanted specifically for her, “CityArts is where it’s at / Activities and more than that / Painting, drumming, dancing too / We get to do it cause of you!” Gorini said this was “definitely the highlight” of the excursion and called it “really touching.”


Art as a vehicle

In its mission, CityArts ensures Providence’s “most challenged” youth participate in professional art education to empower themselves and their community. The program offers students ages eight to 14 classes ranging from street art and ceramics to drumming and samba. Collectively, CityArts’ after-school, summer, on-site and satellite programs involve 1,200 students, Wong said, adding that the program has approximately 70 percent retention from year to year.

The value of an art education is not limited to those on the path to working as a professional artist, but applies to any student in developing personal skills of expression, Wong said, adding that the CityArts community provides kids with a “safe platform to grow.” Past students have now returned to CityArts to teach or volunteer, Wong said.

CityArts also helps students become creators — rather than just users — of technology, Wong said.

Product design courses at CityArts were developed to “demystify the idea of the consumer world — to not simply consume, but to think critically about how products are made, to realize they too can become part of that creative process,” Gorini said.

When Peralta first started participating in CityArts over three years ago, she said she was shy, and the program helped her open up. Wong said Peralta is now “one of our most poised and well-articulated young artists … and has really found her voice in the family that she finds in CityArts, so it’s given her confidence to also take that back to school,” where Peralta is “an excellent student.” Many other students at CityArts have applied the tools of self-expression learned at CityArts to the academic classroom, Wong said.


Rock the easel, not the car

Keefe founded CityArts in 1992 after a summer night drive that “spawned an epiphany,” Wong said. Keefe had stopped at an intersection when a group of boys began harassing and rocking her car, Wong explained, adding that such behavior was “without ill intent” but rather for the sake of entertainment. The boys immediately recognized Keefe when she exited her car, and they “bolted,” leaving her wondering what it was “in our neighborhood that kids are missing that they are left standing on street corners with nothing better to do than to bother people,” Wong said.

CityArts was born with community support in the basement of the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel in the Elmwood neighborhood. In 1995, CityArts moved to its current location in an old jewelry manufacturing building at 891 Broad Street in South Providence. Still, much space remained unused in the large building, so eight years ago, the program partnered with the Highlander Charter School, allowing for renovation and sustainability. Highlander uses the facility during the school day primarily, and CityArts takes over after school hours.

Among many other awards as listed on its website, CityArts earned the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission award in 2008. The CityArts facility now has seven studio spaces, including a dance studio and a Media Lab where students can use Photoshop to create GIFs. CityArts’ new 3D printer has spawned recent course offerings in industrial design, Wong said. The walls are brightly colored and decorated with student work. Cubbies are available for students, who are not allowed to have their phones out during classes. Beyond the first floor lobby are offices, a cafeteria and a gallery of rotating shows from CityArts students and local artists.

CityArts also aims to support local artists, Wong said. The current staff includes over 20 “teaching artists” — CityArts deliberately uses this title, rather than “art teacher,” to emphasize instructors’ positions working in the field, as each is “first and foremost an artist,” Gorini said. Teaching artists “are passing on their craft and their skill … to the young people, which can be incredibly inspiring,” she added.

Each artist is strongly encouraged to share his or her work with students to help them better understand and respect the artist’s work and open themselves up to “learning in a new way,” Gorini added. Generally classes have 10 to 12 students — more on rainy days — with one lead teacher and at least one teaching assistant, Gorini added.

Wong said she hopes to grow both the stable base and the continuous cycle of “new blood” in the teaching artist staff, as it is important for the students to have access to both continuity and a sense of the contemporary art world.

CityArts works with numerous community partners including the Providence After School Alliance, AmeriCorps, the Boys and Girls Club and local universities like Brown. The University will celebrate Youth Arts Day on Saturday. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts will host showcases of creative and performing arts and feature a panel discussion geared to inspire youth toward art and civic involvement.


To stay up-to-date, subscribe to our daily newsletter.

Comments are closed.

Comments are closed. If you have corrections to submit, you can email The Herald at