Art For Whose Sake?

Any second now, Phoenix is going to start looking a lot more like Tucson. That is, if County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox and Youth Program Supervisor Jessica Martin have anything to say about it. They're the folks behind Las Artes de Maricopa County, a new youth-at-risk program that swaps GED training for public art. And while any number of us might be willing to buy a Kleenex box cover made by a high school dropout, do we really want public art made by them?

New Times: Whose idea was it to swap GED training for public art?

Jessica Martin: Mary Rose Wilcox saw the public art in Pima County, in Tucson. They have a similar program there. And she saw the murals on the side of the highway and outside of the local bus stops, and she thought, "Now, where is all this art coming from?"

NT: Apparently from teenaged dropouts.

Martin: We call them out-of-school youths.

NT: Who?

Martin: The dropouts.

NT: Sorry. So, this is kids creating public art, like murals. Will some of it be sold? Will there be a GED Store?

Martin: It's actually broken tile mosaic art. We hope to get to that level at some point, where if you want a trivet or a potholder, you can buy one [from us].

NT: Can those of us with diplomas recommend parts of town that need public art? Because there are some butt-ugly buildings in this town that could use a mural or two.

Martin: There are. The community will have the opportunity to be involved with the program as far as making recommendations about what they want to see. The most difficult thing for us to do is to catch up with Tucson, because at this point we only have 12 students for 12 weeks, because the building will only accommodate that many students working at this time.

NT: It seems like you're trading the kids' time in an art sweatshop for instruction on how to blow through the GED exam.

Martin: What this is is an alternative program where we can provide art education and a GED instruction. The idea is to give them an opportunity to expose their talent and give back to the community. The bottom line is employment training. We want them to experience what it's like to have to arrive at work at a certain time every day, to be responsible for what they're producing. The art is just a tool for us to teach them all of those other components.

NT: Mary Rose told a reporter that the program will address kids' social and emotional needs as well. Is this like art therapy?

Martin: In a sense. We provide the kids with a case manager, and an artist to work with. In the process of working with them, the kids have the opportunity to discuss things and experience different mediums. So if yesterday was a bad day at home, there's someone there to talk to about it, and if you need help choosing a color, there's the artist.

NT: But do we really want to suggest that kids should go into visual arts? Because artists don't make a lot of money, from what I've heard.

Martin: What we're trying to teach them is transferable skills. Not necessarily that they should head into the art world, but to use the skills we teach them to get a job. Any job.

NT: The program will cost about $130,000 a year to operate. You could get some really good public art for that price.

Martin: It actually costs quite a bit more than that. It's actually more like $200,000 per year. But we do provide transportation for the kids; we pick them up and bring them to the facility.

NT: Oh, well. In that case!

Martin: We also provide a stipend for the students for their time in the program. A lot of them might be out of school because their family needs for them to work. So the dollars they earn in the program --

NT: Wait. The kids are getting paid to be in this program? I thought they were here to learn their three R's in exchange for decorating our bus depots.

Martin: It's not a wage, so to speak. They get paid for their progress -- for their attendance and their progress. And then there are extra incentives, so if they come into the program at a sixth-grade level and they reach the seventh-grade level in a certain amount of time, there's an additional incentive payment for that. And when they get their GED, there's an incentive payment there, too.

NT: Hasn't anyone criticized you for this? For paying kids to learn?

Martin: No, I don't believe so. And I don't know that I like the term "paying them." We're not paying them to learn, we're inviting them to learn. We're providing them with an incentive and support to be at this facility every day. If they're here with us all day, they can't also be working. So [paying them] kind of fulfills all of their needs in one place. Pima County has been doing this for 10 years and they have more community support than anyone could imagine down there.

NT: It seems like a program that promotes kids' dropping out. Because if all I had to do was take art class and crib for one big test -- and get paid for it! -- I'd have left high school in a heartbeat.

Martin: Absolutely not. The bottom line is we all know that kids are dropping out, especially in Phoenix. We have one of the highest dropout rates in the nation. There are kids who are going to drop out, so we want to be able to provide for kids with good creative sense who don't fit into a standard classroom. We want to promote the idea that no matter what happens with your education, you can still contribute to the community and the labor force as you grow.

NT: How do you determine which kids are eligible?

Martin: They're eligible if they're disadvantaged youth. And if they're teen parents, they're eligible.

NT: What if they're lousy artists?

Martin: There's no assessment of their skill at any level for them to enter into this program. If they're out of school and they're interested, they're eligible.

NT: That's not very good news for the state of public art. Can you teach kids to make art? Because I took four years of art in high school, and I sucked. I still can't draw a stick figure.

Martin: I think every project is created by the whole group, so we'll be able to pull from the strength of the artists. If someone's strength isn't making mosaic art from tile, maybe their strength is in cutting the tile.

NT: So you don't infiltrate high school art classes, looking for good artists with lousy grades?

Martin: No. What we're doing is saying to the high schools, "Look, we're here, and we're available, and if you're struggling to get these kids back in school, here's an alternative." But we're definitely not pulling them out of schools because they're good art students.

NT: So you spend half the day teaching them what's going to be on the GED exam, and the other half of the day you make them create public art projects.

Martin: Absolutely. We provide them with an assessment, and we teach them what to expect on the test. If they enter at a sixth-grade level, it might take them up to 32 weeks before they're ready for the test.

NT: Which beats the heck out of four years in high school. But I keep thinking of those guys in prison who are forced to make license plates.

Martin: The bottom line is that when those people are let out of prison, they're done with you. They're not going to continue to support you in any way. There's not a ton of skills you can take [out of prison] and transfer back to the community.

NT: Like making mosaic tile bus depot murals.

Martin: We haven't really gotten that far yet, so at first it may be coffee tables and, I don't know, tea trays. Who knows? We'll just have to take it one step at a time and see how it goes. But we're hoping to grow from making potholders to the bus stop murals and the sides of buildings and along the freeways. If you ever go to Tucson, you'll see the mosaic murals [from our program], and they're just everywhere. Everywhere.

-- By Robrt L. Pela

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela