America's Largest Free Art School Is Spreading Creativity from Coast to Coast

Setting up shop in public libraries, ProjectArt is on the rise.

When the after-school arts organization he was working for in Harlem shut its doors in the wake of the Great Recession, artist turned teacher Adarsh Alphons wasn’t ready to say goodbye. “I wanted to make sure that the children and families I had formed bonds with weren’t just cut loose,” he says.

He collected art supplies from his apartment, borrowed a contact’s office space, and continued teaching. Alphons soon realized that the demand for such instruction was far greater than he had thought—four million elementary school students across the country, mostly in low-income neighborhoods, weren’t receiving any kind of art education. In 2011, he founded the nonprofit ProjectArt in hopes of reaching as many of those kids as possible.

In his first two years, Alphons added more and more classes, often teaching six hours straight during the day and waiting tables on the Upper West Side at night to pay for additional instructors. In 2013, he hit upon the idea that changed everything: ProjectArt could partner with public libraries to trade free programming for free rent. “Libraries would put us directly into the neighborhoods where people lived, making our classes very accessible.”

Faced with the prospect of declining attendance, libraries saw the value immediately. This fall, ProjectArt is expanding beyond New York, Detroit, and Miami to Chicago, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh—a total of 43 libraries across the country. Each teacher is offered a one-year residency, with a studio space inside the library to use for their own projects.

Funding for the organization comes in a variety of forms, from corporate partners like Goldman Sachs, Blick Art Supplies, and Christie’s to individual donations. In April, artists such as Cecily Brown and Olafur Eliasson participated in My Kid Could Do That, a benefit auction featuring work that 24 established artists made as children—the point being that any kid with access to art education can grow up to become a major figure in the art world. Another such fund-raiser is planned for next year.

“These kids don’t even have to become artists,” Alphons says. “But art keeps their eyes looking for ways to connect the dots.”

Discover more stories about how the arts are changing the world. 

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