If you haven’t discovered THE Arts Corridor of the Southwest, you should make the trek. From the pasajaes on Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana and the boundary monuments to The Front in San Ysidro and the studios in National City and Barrio Logan, the entire South Bay is filled with artistic gems. These are not upscale galleries that cost a fortune or spaces that have been gentrified. Here you can enjoy an authentic, hands-on, real life world of art.
This week, I look at the non-profit ARTS: A Reason To Survive in National City.
You might see their work throughout the city: they created the tiles along the fence at Border Field State Park, for example.
Butterfly Park was another community project on Palm Ave, where they took unused land and worked with the community to define what to do with the space. They then used local designers to go from dirt land into a park with a butterfly theme as well as a little seating area. On the whole, they used recycled and repurposed materials. What once was a dirty open lot is now a playground where kids can go to play.
ARTS additionally received a SANDAG grant to create functional art bike racks. The students worked with National City artist Roman Desalvo to first create a wood markup, then collaborated with the welding shop in Sweetwater Academy to create the metal racks. You can now see these bike racks throughout San Diego. Neat, right?
Well, be aware that you can’t just go and visit their venue like you might visit a museum. This is a hands-on place — so there’s plenty of work to be done for volunteers!
The center has three different kinds of arts set up for kids: therapeutic arts, arts education and college & career preparation. All the children face some kind of adversity, whether its homelessness, abuse, foster care or other challenges. ARTS provides visual, performing and media arts to create positive change within the children.
“It’s a one-stop-shop of how can we create change within themselves and then how can they use that to create change within their communities,” says Matt D’Arrigo, Founder & CEO of the center.
Matt started the organization 13 years ago out of his house. At the time, it was all outreach, so he would go to the Ronald McDonald house and do art projects with the kids there. Then, he started partnering with homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters and group homes. He also started partnering with teachers and volunteers.
His ultimate vision was to create an art center: a place where kids could come and escape everything. He also wanted a space where kids could use the arts as a way to just feel good again. Matt’s first arts center was in the newly redeveloped NTC Liberty Station where rents were cheap, but after five years his lease came up. He felt the center wasn’t really embedded in the community.
Matt found National City. At the time, the San Diego repertoire theater was in the space as well as the old public library. However, National City was in the works for building a brand new library and the question became: what to do with the old space? Matt stepped in and they gutted the place, but kept the original wood. The repertoire theater still used part of the space for rehearsals and for sets, but when the recession hit in 2007, programming stopped completely for several years.
They were able to start working in the space in Fall 2012. It was a phased-in approach due to a very small budget. Today, they serve about 200 kids per week and about 2,500 kids annually. Interestingly, they won’t be expanding those numbers anytime soon. Matt would prefer to deepen the experience for the kids who are already at the center. He wants to use the arts to prepare kids emotionally, socially and with life skills. That means building long-term relationships with the kids. Ideally, he wants kids who are in elementary school to be part of the center all the way through their education. The longer the relationship the deeper the impact.
“You’ve got little kids and big kids. Some kids do therapeutic arts, it’s more process over product. It’s building a sense of trust, safety, belonging, positive relationships with adults. It’s about kids enjoying the process. Then when we go to arts education, it flips to skill building,” Matt says.
The center has grown to about 10 staff members, full time and part time. There are about 23 teaching artists on staff also: musicians, artists and photographers. All of them are supported by volunteers. It’s important for the kids to build relationships with the teachers, so the artists stay while the volunteers — since there is a lot of turn over — play support roles. The artists also want to show the kids that they can eventually make money out of being artists.
The Center is incredibly impressive with rooms that have something for everyone. They have an industrial arts room with welding, carpentry, wood working and ceramics. They house a kiln and they are trying to create something with several recycled conveyor belts. One of the storage rooms will eventually focus on fashion and they have two designers who want to teach the classes. There is a large visual arts space with painting, printmaking, ceramics and drawing. Some smaller rooms have jewelry making. There is a resource library, computer spaces and an event space. They receive all kinds of recycled stuff like old pianos that they turn into art.
“You never know where kids are going to find their voice,” Matt says. “We want to be able to provide multiple ways of doing that.”
The Danny Riley Music Room has, among other instruments, an entire rack of ukeleles. Danny, a Chula Vista local, died of brain cancer in 2007 at the age of nineteen. The room is dedicated to his memory as he was a talented musician who played the piano, saxophone, acoustic guitar and also was a songwriter.
Outreach doesn’t end there. One room that displays paintings and visual arts also has a tree of life mural, which brings awareness to the importance of organ donations and registering to be a donor.
Outside you can see the recycled piano, painted in yellow. A homeless man often comes here in the mornings to sit and play for a while.
ARTS has also won an Oscar! Check out the film about a homeless Latina teenager and her artistic endeavors. If you’re so inclined, can even host your own screenings of the film.