ArtWorks, literally: Knight Arts Challenge winner vitalizes Miami community through art-making

Photo: ArtWorks Dance interns review arabesque techniques, part of the basic ballet training that is part of their work with Internship Facilitator Alejandro Bahia.

In her role as executive director of Arts For Learning, Sheila Womble has led the organization through a period of tremendous growth that has had a lasting impact on the lives of 175 South Florida high school students. With a grant from the 2012 South Florida Knight Arts Challenge, Arts For Learning expanded ArtWorks, its summer internship program for high school students interested in artistic disciplines. ArtWorks, which has become one of the most important internship programs in South Florida, hires student interns to make and produce works of art in four areas: visual arts, creative writing, theater and dance.

Throughout the six-week program, Master Teaching Artists Alejandro Bahia, Latrice Bruno, Yanira Collado, Jean-Paul Mallozzi and I facilitated the development of interns’ creative, professional and, most importantly, critical thinking skills at satellite locations throughout Wynwood, including the Bakehouse Art Complex and Miami Light Project, both Knight Arts grantees. The program culminated in two major events produced by ArtWorks interns—an art exhibition (“LEveLS”) and a matinee and prime-time performance piece (“Influence”)—where money was raised through ticket and art sales.  

ArtWorks intern Kashia studies dance at New World School of the Arts, and has spent the summer supplementing her school year dance technique.

When the program ended–well, it didn’t really end. There’s more ArtWorks to come this fall. This is what I learned when I  reached out to Womble to discuss the future of ArtWorks.

What are the tangible impacts the Arts for Learning’s ArtWorks program has had on student-interns? This is Arts for Learning’s fourth year providing the ArtWorks program, and each year we see significant positive changes in the student-interns. For many of the student-interns, this is their first, maybe second job. A favorite piece of evidence that the program was making a difference was when one intern shared with me that until ArtWorks, he did not think work could bring out the best in people; he did not believe that a workplace could be positive or nurturing. In comparison with his one other job experience, he said that he now realizes how “a manager who supports his team and fosters honest and direct communication makes for a better work environment and, ultimately, a better product.” That statement made me realize we were showing these interns what real leadership looks and feels like.

What are some of the important components of the ArtWorks program? An important aspect of the program is that while we have targeted outcomes for the interns, there is always additional personal growth and transformation. We see and hear from the interns that the program increases their confidence in their abilities, improves their self-efficacy and, perhaps most importantly, they learn to take responsible risks, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. The interns see the correlation between effort, risks and rewards.

Another important component to recognize is that the interns are high school students, and they have much to say and share. Through the internship, the interns find their voice and learn how to use it effectively. More evidence of the program’s impact is that the interns stay in touch with Arts for Learning and one another. We emphasize the importance of having a network and developing strong peer relations. The interns realize that in addition to the contacts they make in the community, they are also good resources for one another.

ArtWorks Creative Writing interns rehearse a spoken word piece for their final performance.

Why is the ArtWorks program important? Prior to the ArtWorks program, there were no internships in the arts in Miami where the interns were working as professional artists. That was just ridiculous for a community that positions itself as a crossroads of culture. Internships are offered as a learning experience because every industry is different; there are different systems and skills to acquire, but the skills that the arts teach are transferable. Through an internship in the arts, the interns not only learn about art-making and all that producing and presenting involves, but they also learn skills that will serve them no matter what career path they choose. Arts internships are comprehensive, efficient and effective in that respect.

How does art-making lead to the development of strong professional skills for the interns?  One cannot make art without generating and exploring ideas; to engage in art-making, the creators are required to bring something of themselves to the work (their thoughts, questions, experiences). It is a motivating, rigorous and engaging process. I mention this because the arts develop essential habits of mind that you want people to possess–habits such as persistence, questioning, flexibility in thinking, imagining, inventing, finding humor and being able to communicate effectively. Those skills will take anyone far and lead them to success. The program is also important because we primarily serve youth who are living in depressed socioeconomic areas. All youth benefit from art-making, but we recognize that there is greater need for youth in our most challenging neighborhoods to have the opportunities and experiences to hone and develop these skills.

At large, the arts are underutilized and undervalued in society and in education—this program is one way to lift up what we know works and what is meaningful.

ArtWorks Internship Facilitator Yanira Collado helps intern Kayra complete a mixed media piece.

What is the future of Arts for Learning and ArtWorks? We are happy to share that the ArtWorks program has grown and continues to do so. When we launched the program, it was only offered as a paid summer program. Now ArtWorks is also offered for academic credit through a partnership with Miami-Dade County Public Schools and, this year, thanks to support from The Children’s Trust, the program will now also be available as a paid year-long internship. Our staff and board are fully committed to the ongoing growth and development of internships in the arts. My vision is to have 100 interns each year and to expand the program to even more disciplines beyond theatre, dance, visual art and creative writing. For now, one step at a time. Launching the year-long internship this fall is the current focus.

What tangible impact has Knight funding had on Arts for Learning and the communities that the organization serves? The Knight Foundation funding made the growth of ArtWorks program possible. Arts for Learning had received seed funding from UBS to start the internships, but we knew that the program had tremendous potential for impact and growth. Securing the top Knight Arts Challenge grant in 2012 brought visibility to Arts for Learning and the work we are doing throughout the community. Having a three-year grant allowed [us] to grow and stabilize the program as we sought additional community support.

With Knight funding, we were able to show what is possible when you invest in young people and allow the power of the arts to help them see new possibilities for themselves.

“LEveLS,” an art exhibition by ArtWorks interns, is on display through August 15 at the recently opened Laundromat Art Space (5900 N.E. Second Ave., Miami).