Tuesday, August 17, 1999

ArtWorks not just painting by numbers

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Sometimes you just know when something is right. You can see it. But how do you measure it?

        High school kids. Busy. Engaged. Heads together. Talking. Laughing. The cliques are determined by who is working on which project. Not where they live. Not skin color. Not economics. Not hair style or muscles. Students show up early for their minimum-wage jobs and stay late.

        Then, just when you think you've seen it all, you get an eyeful of what they have been working on. A spectacular 19-by-16-foot dragonfly made of Japanese paper and silk and eyeglass lenses and some stuff that was formerly junk will be the signature bug in the Krohn Conservatory's insect exhibit. This giant three-dimensional billboard is stunning. And functional.

Sitting with van Gogh
        Visitors to the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Taft Museum can lounge on benches painted with copies of Miro and Whistler. You can sit down and throw your arm around a cutout of van Gogh. It's yours — made possible by your tax dollars.

        (Stick with me here, fellow Philistines. This is not really about government-subsidized art, I promise, although a lot of the money comes from city and state grants. And the work done by the students is proudly artistic.)

        The students are employees of ArtWorks, a 4-year-old project sponsored by the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative.

        “We are a job training program,” ArtWorks Director Tamara Harkavy says. “We happen to use the arts as a vehicle.” She'd like to train more workers and produce more art, which could be sold to help pay for next year's workers-in-training.

        “This is not something every city can do,” says Chad P. Wick, chief executive of the Thomas L. Conlan Education Foundation. “We can. We have the artistic infrastructure — SCPA, DAAP.”

        And, indeed, the faculty for ArtWorks has spectacular credentials. Besides teachers from the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) and UC's College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning (DAAP), ArtWorks draws on the resources of the Cincinnati Art Museum and Contemporary Arts Center.

        We have culture to burn around here. There is some reason that a city our size has maintained a remarkably good symphony, not to mention ballet and opera. There's a reason that one of our most revered buildings is good, old Music Hall. This is part of our community fabric.

        It's not something we tack on. It is what we are.

The numbers game
        Maybe that's why this program has been successful here so far. But it's not cheap. ArtWorks turned out 135 workers this summer with a budget of $300,000. The program, which ended Aug. 12, lasts for eight weeks. The rest of the year is spent writing grants, raising money, begging for money. It's not getting any easier.

        “The long-term impact on kids is not quantifiable,” I was told by a staffer from Chicago's Gallery 37, a $4.5 million program that was the model for ArtWorks. “We just know it works. We see it every day.”

        It's not about numbers.

        Unless you count what happens when hundreds of teen-agers learn about the importance of showing up for work on time.

        Unless you count what happens when you show an artist how to put bread on the table.

        Unless you count what happens when you give a kid who thought he couldn't do anything the feeling that he can do everything.

        Unless you count what happens when an “at-risk” kid becomes a student who comes to school every day.

        All these things happen. Tamara has seen it. Now it's up to the rest of us to decide how much that is worth.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com