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Positive Change Afoot at Children's Art Centre

Nearly a century on and the CAC is continuing to evolve and play an important role in the lives of local youths.

For years you’ve walked past the brick wall at 36 Rutland. You’ve heard the sounds of laughing children and glimpsed the courtyard beyond the brick, but you likely assumed it was just another neighborhood park or maybe a day care center.

Well, it’s a fair bit more than that. The origin of the good fun being had behind the brick wall is the (CAC) – a South End institution (literally), albeit one that not many of the newer neighborhood inhabitants know is there. And yet, they ought to: for almost a century, as a facet of United South End Settlements (USES), the CAC has been bringing children and art closer together, encouraging exploration and self expression in ways that—perhaps now more than ever—kids aren’t experiencing in public schools.

“Since the schools have focused their attention on testing, most of what happens during the school day is a direct reflection of what gets tested,” explained CAC Manager Chelsea Revelle. “The arts and music are notably very dynamic subjects and are very difficult to measure via standardized testing, hence they get cut.”

Revelle, an artist in her own right and a MassArt grad, points out that just as the schools are making these cuts, the importance of creative skills has continued to multiply in ways that may not be immediately obvious: reasoning, justification, synthesis, analysis, and problem-solving are all necessary assets for success in a vocational market that’s more demanding than ever before. Part of the CAC’s tireless work involves making sure that the opportunity to learn these lessons through creative problem solving is something that’s extended to all youths regardless of race, geography or economic background.

“We believe that the arts offer far more than just enrichment and exposure to new experiences, but rather the tools required to build the '21st Century Skills' necessary in today’s workplace,” Revelle said, expressing excitement over Obama’s shared concern for the backseat art has taken in public schools as outlined in his recent report, “Reinvesting in Arts Education.”

What’s clear in examining the CAC’s extensive timeline is that it has always served the local community very well regardless of what has or hasn’t been happening for kids during the school day. Back in 1918 the Centre was designated as a fine arts museum for children, built via the efforts of settlement-house administrator, Albert Kennedy and FitzRoy Carrington, an MFA curator. The building was designed by Alexander Emerson, and the first president of the CAC was the renowned architect, Ralph Adams Cram. In the 30s, new Director Charlotte Dempsey played a lasting role in transforming the Centre into a viable and sophisticated place of learning.

It’s been steadily evolving ever since – from being a place where kids came merely to emulate what hung on the walls to becoming an outlet for local artists to show their work and a space where creatively-driven children can hone skills and begin producing original pieces. Local artist Allan Rohan Crite got his start at the CAC, no doubt just one of many former Art Centre youths that have grown into creative careers.

Now the Art Centre is getting even more involved in supporting school-readiness from pre-school on up through the tween years and, as Revelle explained, the organization has slightly shifted its mission as a result.

The new goals are a direct byproduct of using the Theory of Change model (a logic-based means of helping clarify desired ‘transformative’ results paired with effective strategies to reach them, i.e. a method of staying focused). It’s been a two year process and a rather effective one at that: the CAC is working with representatives from both the and Schools on pitching joint grant proposals that would go toward supporting arts in education. The organization is also doing its own research through something called Efforts to Outcomes, during which students are monitored over a two-year period to better assess the impact of arts on the learning process. And there’s more…

“This fall, in conjunction with the , the CAC will launch its new tween programming, ‘Teen Art in the South End,’ in order to engage youth between the ages of 12 – 15,” Revelle said. “Through a multitude of free visual arts workshops, gallery discussions and critical thinking activities we hope to foster an appreciation for the arts and serve as a national model of successful neighborhood engagement.”

Revelle stressed the importance of continued funding to maintain the subsidized nature of programming at the CAC, where activity groups have low-income slots for South End/Lower Roxbury kids built into their design.

“We’re stepping up our birthday party rentals this fall to offer a variety of weekend-long packages,” she said. “Along with proceeds of sales from our newly produced Create & Connect activity guide, that will help support additional free programming such as Teen Art in the South End.”

“The new activity guide was created to encourage family engagement, but I would really like to work off of that idea and develop some fun ‘mommy nights’ which would allow parents to play with materials on their own. Perhaps even coordinate some evening adult art classes… we’re always open to suggestions.”

Support the CAC by purchasing the Create and Connect activity book for $15 sold here. The Centre is now accepting registration for its summer programming. Keep up with activities and events at the Art Centre via Revelle's blog.

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