CityArts is about to celebrate its 24th anniversary of bringing the expressive, empowering presence of art and creativity into the lives of underserved youth in the South Side of Providence and surrounding communities. A year after the passing of its beloved founder, activist Sister Ann Keefe, CityArts remains committed to upholding her mission to provide kids with a venue for finding their voices through the arts.
“South Side communities have always been historically populated with immigrant families trying to find their way in the world, and are among the poorest in Providence,” says Barbara Wong, Executive Director who has been with CityArts since 2000. “Sister Ann recognized that there were some resources available to help families, but access to quality arts programs was missing. She wanted to provide them with a safe haven, while also recognizing that art is intrinsic to the foundational development in all children’s lives, and it shouldn’t be inaccessible based on socioeconomic barriers.”
CityArts started as a neighborhood-centric summer camp held in the basement of St. Michael’s Church, where Sister Ann was a nun. In three years, the program had grown and relocated to a 32,000-square foot jewelry mill on Broad Street. In 2003, CityArts expanded its reach and renovated its residence through a strategic partnership with the very first charter school in the state, the Highlander Charter School. Highlander, which already bused students to CityArts for after-school programming, moved into the building as well. Seven million dollars transformed the old mill into an arts center and charter school serving thousands of students and becoming a “beacon of hope and positivity” for locals and others interested in investing in the community. CityArts now provides 900-1,000 elementary and middle school students with multidisciplinary arts classes, as well as the state’s only AmeriCorps program that places teaching artists in schools. Classes in digital media and 3D printing have also recently become part of the program’s offerings, which seek to provide practical coursework to prepare students for future careers in the field.
CityArts looks forward to its 17th annual fundraising gala on June 10, which will feature a Cirque du CityArts circus theme. CityArts also announces a major transition this year as Barbara leaves her longtime post to explore new horizons, emphasizing that she will provide support to the process of securing the best candidate to lead the organization into the future. Her voice beams gratitude when talking about the meaningful impact CityArts has had on students, like one boy who initially struggled when faced with a project asking him to define hope. After creating a claymation short film of a baseball player hitting a ball out of the park and witnessing a CityArts event audience cheer along with the onscreen crowds during his film screening, the boy said, “Now I know what hope is.” Another CityArts alum and post-program volunteer, Victoria Matthews, returned following Sister Ann’s passing with a beautiful poem in tribute to the organization, which was later published. Victoria will graduate UMass Amherst this year with a dual degree in African American and Gender Studies.
“Middle school is a tough time – it’s just crazy for kids,” notes Barbara. “The arts keep them excited about learning and wanting to go to school, as well as teaching social resilience, making friends, building communities and working together. It was Sister Ann’s whole philosophy: by reaching kids earlier, you are able to give them the creative foundation that they need in order to succeed in life.”
Cirque du CityArts Gala
June 10, 7pm
Woods-Gerry House, 62 Prospect Street
891 Broad Street