In an old store front on a growing retail block on the West Side, you will find a special place unlike any other: an interdisciplinary arts studio for high school students known as New Urban Arts. Inside the studio’s open, informal space, relaxed teens gather, discussing and sketching beneath enormous colorful paper lampshades.
Executive director, Jason Yoon, explains that the mission of New Urban Arts is to foster in young people a creative practice they can sustain throughout their lives. Each year, twenty college art students and practicing artists serve as mentor-instructors to 150 Providence public high school students, who together explore the arts during free out-of-school programs. Providence is so rich in artists and art students, and has such a generous creative community, that many more artists apply to be mentors than can be hired. That in itself speaks volumes about our creative capital.
Students and artist mentors show their work in exhibitions, performances, workshops, fashion shows, and at the annual Art Party -- which last year was a block party in partnership with neighboring small businesses -- attracting over 2,000 visitors throughout the year.
New Urban Arts was selected this year by the U.S. Department of Education to be part of a “best practices” study of after-school programs that receive federal funding – one of just twenty programs selected nationwide.
Yoon credits this honor and New Urban Arts’ success in general to the fact that it has well-defined and executed values, promoting a collaborative and democratic creative practice wherein youth are supported in self-expression and leadership. For instance, mentors are selected by their future students in a group interview process.
Yoon and his passionate, experienced staff should also take credit. Energetic and articulate, Yoon says his understanding of the creative process changed when he mentored at New Urban Arts while a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. He describes being pulled from his comfort zone and feeling the thrill of collaborative learning. Transformed by his mentoring experience, after graduation Yoon worked in arts education in New York City for seven years and sought to replicate the New Urban Arts model there. But in 2007, he jumped at the chance to apply for New Urban Art’s directorship. “The uncommon sense of community I have found in Providence, especially in the creative sector, is a beautiful thing,” says Yoon.