Nonprofit Art School Helps Youth Thrive in Skid Row, Los Angeles

Text and Photos by Sean Myers

LOS ANGELES — Nestled among nondescript warehouses and infamous streets, Inner-City Arts in downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row is an oasis for artistic growth and self-exploration that serves more than 8,000 students each year.

See these creative students in action! Click the photo gallery above.

The school provides free classes each day for students in grades K-8 education through a partnership with the L.A. Unified School District and other charter schools. The nonprofit organization also offers after-school and weekend programs for high school students, as well as summer programs for children of all ages. The out-of-school time classes typically have a fee, but Vy Pham, associate director of communications, said via email that it is “waived for most all of our students.”

“We’ve observed the power of the arts to transform lives, to create a state of being in which people can grow and develop, in which they can solve problems and overcome obstacles,” said Bob Bates, artistic director and co-founder of Inner-City Arts.

Along with businessman Irwin Jaeger, Bates created the school in 1989. “About 35 years ago I was meditating in my studio in downtown Los Angeles, and in the silence of the meditation, I heard a man’s voice say, ‘Get an art space for kids,’” Bates said.

A period of self-reflection had led him to extensive meditation. Teaching art renewed his sense of purpose and fueled a personal transformation, Bates said.

“As these things unfolded, art became a doorway into real wellness for me,” he said. And he had a vision to create an art space for kids.

200.000 Children Experience the Creative Process

In the decades since its opening, Inner-City Arts has grown from a converted auto body shop to a thriving campus that inhabits an acre plot. Bates estimates the organization has impacted 200,000 children.

At the center of its success is a teaching philosophy that promotes wellness by empowering students to unleash creativity without fear of judgment or rigid requirements.

“Creativity is the process of bringing something into being that wasn’t there before. That whole process inherently has challenges, moments of desperation, choices that need to be made and results. Any person who truly puts themselves in that process experiences pride, a sense of possibility and the potential of their own agency,” said Jennifer Carroll, Inner-City Arts’ associate director of education.

Carroll said she promotes wellness for her 43-person staff by nurturing their growth as both artists and educators. She believes inspired faculty are more likely to positively affect students.

“You want the adults who work with your kids to be well,” she said.

The school refers to its faculty as “artist-teachers” because educators typically work as professional artists alongside their role at Inner-City Arts. The artist-teachers each create their own curriculum that incorporates the organization’s core values.

For Lizbeth Navarro, a ceramics artist-teacher, it’s a dream job. She wasn’t exposed to clay until she reached college, so she values the access to her beloved art form that Inner-City Arts provides for children.

Navarro said: “Having the opportunity to share it with students at a younger age so that they get that exposure way before I did, so they have those possibilities and ways of expressing themselves way earlier … we’re opening their world to infinite possibilities.”

Read more about out-of-school-time programs on Youth Today.


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