Living Arts steps in to inspire Detroit kids with music, art

Dan B. Jones
Special to The Detroit News
Living Arts teaching artist Stephanie Howells uses kinetic sculpture to illustrate the properties of waves and energy at Cesar Chavez Academy.

A Detroit-based nonprofit continues to increase the exposure that local youth in the city's public schools and charters have to music and art.From the humblest of beginnings in southwest Detroit in 1999, a small dance class has grown to serve more than 3,000 kids across the city and beyond with expanded arts programming.

Alissa Novoselick, executive director of Living Arts, approximates that since about 2008, the operating budget of the organization has, like the participants, multiplied in number, from about $150,000 to almost $1 million.

"It's not just play… but paying attention to the education they are getting and paying attention to the arts as the tool to learn,” she said.

Living Arts does not relegate its programs only to early childhood development. Throughout the city, Living Arts’ artists are installed into residencies designed to accompany and support student’s education in English, language arts, math, science and social studies.

Its support goes beyond the classrooms as well. At Ford Resource & Engagement Center at the Mexicantown Mercado in southwest Detroit, a wide variety of programming is offered. From visual art and other media, to dance and music, the interests of just about any youth, regardless of ability and income, are catered to, and the community is bolstered.

With all this community-emphasized programming, more than 3,000 students were served in and outside the classrooms last year. This was accomplished through the efforts of 57 artists employed in 204 residencies. Additionally, 88 classroom teachers received professional development through Living Arts to help incorporate the arts into future curricula.

Living Arts teaching artist Alesha Brown teaches a Baby Artsplay workshop at the Ford Resource and Engagement Center.

“We’ve worked hard to scale up and be a strong partner with the public school system and have really strong relationships with some schools that prioritize us in their budget,” said Matt Nahan, the chair of the development committee on the board of directors for Living Arts.

Through sizable donations from the Ford Motor Company Fund, the Social Innovation Fund through the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, the Kresge Foundation, Max and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation and others, Living Arts is celebrating its 20th anniversary of working toward addressing a shortfall in resources for access to the arts inside and out of education.

A lack of opportunities for arts exposure for children in their communities and schools is something teachers and other leaders bemoan, said Erika Villarreal Bunce, Living Art’s Director of Programs, in an email.

“Without adequate funding, our community of schools experience difficulties securing arts education that is profound, intentional, consistent and effective,” Villarreal Bunce said.   

While there are other organizations doing work somewhat similar to Living Arts, the scale, goals and ambition of the organization set it apart, said Kamilah Henderson, senior program officer at the Community Foundation, a Detroit-based organization that helps fund Living Arts. 

“In other states, organizations like Living Arts are common, but here, they are quite unique,” Henderson said. “Lately, there have been a lot of newcomers, but Living Arts knows the community.”       

Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts is a national organization that found a partner in Living Arts’ mission. The two organizations have now been affiliates for several years.

Through Detroit Wolf Trap, artist residencies and workshops are offered “in school and community settings for children three months to six years, according to the Living Arts website.

But this isn’t about just keeping young children entertained, said Roberta Lucas, teaching artist and Detroit Wolf Trap program specialist. 

The American Institutes for Research analyzed Wolf Trap’s early education programs and found significant improvements in mathematical achievement among program participants.     

"It’s about the joyful and visible learning when you see the light bulb go on,” Lucas said.

The lasting impact that Living Arts hopes to have is not just on the immediate lives of students but also to add skills and knowledge of their teachers.

“What’s really exciting to me is not just the impact that we have on youth, but also the impact we have on classroom educators,” Novoselick said. “As a former teacher, I’ve never received professional development like what Living Arts provides in the classroom.”

Living Arts certainly has much to celebrate. With its 20th-anniversary celebration coming up on April 11 at the Masonic Temple, the internationally renowned street artist Revok (who recently contributed $50,000) will be honored by the organization. The benefit will feature music by Sterling Toles, a music producer and Living Arts teaching artist, along with visual and performing arts exhibitions.