Adarsh Alphons, Founder and Executive Director of ProjectArt Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Adarsh Alphons, Founder and Executive Director of ProjectArt and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

Adarsh

Adarsh Alphons © LinkedIn

Denver: You get to hear from the CEOs of some of the best known and well-established non-profit organizations in the country most every single week. But there are some newer and lesser known ones that are beginning to have a profound impact and are reimagining the sector in fresh and creative ways. One of those would be ProjectArt. With us this evening is their Founder and Executive Director, Adarsh Alphons. Good evening, Adarsh, and welcome to The Business of Giving.

Adarsh Alphons: Happy to be here, Denver. Thanks for having me.

Denver: Tell us about ProjectArt and the mission and goals of the organization.

Adarsh: ProjectArt seeks to unleash the creative power in libraries nationwide by putting art classes in them and offering studio space to emerging artists.

Denver: You may be the only person that I’ve had on this show, Adarsh, who was, or at least admits to, having been expelled from school at the ripe old age of 7. What in the world were you doing?

Adarsh: It began with a very unfortunate situation of– I didn’t realize that I was going to be sitting here and mentioning– telling this and sharing this with everyone else we have listening, but I was kicked out of school when I was 7 years old because I drew in every class. It’s something that I resorted to because I had a tendency to draw, and I wasn’t understanding what was going on in class. I wasn’t coping, and that drawing was my way of  finding my headspace.  And I got kicked out of school because I wasn’t doing anything but that.

I grew up in India, and this is in Delhi, and the environment was such that didn’t necessarily support arts. But I knew drawing gave me the free space and the liberty through which to find myself and to learn. You know doodling is a way of learning, they found recently.

Denver: Yes. It’s good for the brain, as a matter of fact, I hear. It actually increases blood flow to the parts of the brain which is where rewards are… and things of that sort. But you went to another school, and that is where everything changed for you.

Adarsh: Yes. So having been kicked out of the school, my parents took me to a different school where I got into trouble again. I was taken to the principal. Basically, this would be the last stop before I was kicked out again. The principal said, “Well, you know, Adarsh, look, clearly you like to draw… I have no idea what you’re drawing, but that’s okay. Also, study. Do your drawing, but also study. Draw as much as you want, but make sure you learn something too. I felt validated. I felt I had a license to be myself. Here I was… a kid who had trouble learning and coping, and now, from someone who was authoritative in the school, the principal, I had a license to be myself. My grades went up. I started to draw a lot, and I took to drawing. I took to finishing my subjects on time. Yes, I had radical improvement of grades.

There I was a few weeks later, giving this drawing in person to Nelson Mandela, who has now since passed, so the opportunity will not come again. But I also realized — and I was 10 years old at that time — I realized if I had stopped drawing, I would never have had a chance to meet someone so cool and so great. At that moment, it was just beyond fathoming what it was. It’s like meeting Martin Luther King or Gandhi. It’s insane.

Denver: Wow, so art really saved your life in many ways, and this culminated for you with a meeting with Nelson Mandela. Tell us how that came about.

Adarsh: At 7, I was kicked out of school. This was early ‘90s. In ‘94, Mandela became President of South Africa. It was a big moment globally, so I remember. And in ’95, he was visiting India, so I did these drawings of him based on television interviews and magazine covers just on a piece of paper, showed it to Dad.  Dad said, “Show it to your principal since she’s a fan of your work.” So I said, “Okay.” So I took it to Madam Simmon… that’s her name. And she said, “Oh, Adarsh, guess what! Actually, next month, Mandela is visiting Delhi, and we have some kids from school going to greet him at a hotel, and you should come along with us because we have the best athlete here; we have the best academic student. What we don’t have is someone that is a creative, and we have to show the breadth of what we bring to the next generation. Creativity is a part of it.” So I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

There I was a few weeks later, giving this drawing in person to Nelson Mandela, who has now since passed, so the opportunity will not come again. But I also realized — and I was 10 years old at that time — I realized if I had stopped drawing, I would never have had a chance to meet someone so cool and so great. At that moment, it was just beyond fathoming what it was. It’s like meeting Martin Luther King or Gandhi. It’s insane.

Denver: It’s beyond me right now, as a matter of fact, even as you’re talking about it. Well, knowing how arts can transform a life because it transformed yours — you come to America, and you take a look at the art scenes in the public schools of this country. Let’s start with New York City. How available are the arts across the system?

Adarsh: Well, the problem with arts research is that there wasn’t really any research to go by. So people thought, “Oh, arts is going down.” People say, “No, there’s enough arts; arts are not important. There’s sufficient arts.” Fortunately, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, he published a report about four or five years ago called State of the Arts which did a comprehensive survey of all New York City public schools and released that roughly one-third of schools in New York City did not have sufficient arts education. They don’t even have one full-time certified art teacher.

Denver: Not one art teacher?

Adarsh: Not one full-time certified art teacher… which is horrible because some of these schools have 300-400 kids, and not even one teacher who knows the subject. So, can you imagine a school with 400 kids without even one certified English teacher or Math teacher? It’s inconceivable. Not that one teacher is enough. We need—Three hundred students, the ratio should be somewhat reasonable. We’re talking a pretty bad situation.

Denver: So you set out to do something about this. And I think you’ve mentioned before, and you alluded to it earlier, your breakthrough moment is when you thought about the local public library. Tell us about their involvement in this, and what the local library does and how they are partnering with you to teach art to these children.

Adarsh: So, ProjectArt’s goal, as I was mentioning, we like to think we’re a startup. We’re 6 years old. We like to think we are a tech company in the business of arts education. It’s a nonprofit. And by tech, it’s really more of a mindset than just the use of technology. Of course, every company today has to take advantage of technology. Our mindset is:  How do we look at how people are currently solving the problem, see what’s working…what’s not working, and how to use data to see where we should go, how to use the power of economics to unleash where we can go, how we can look at the sharing economy model. The Airbnb’s, the Uber’s of the world, and even YouTube is a sharing economy because it’s self-publishing to a certain extent — we can share ourselves and make money from it and take advantage of it.

So ProjectArt wanted to figure out how we could not just bring arts to kids in Harlem where I founded this, but in South Bronx, in Central Brooklyn, Coney Island, Staten Island… Then what about Detroit? What about South Side of Chicago? What about Compton and Inglewood in L.A.? What about anywhere else? And we said: There’s got to be a way to do this. And there is no one else doing something like this on a national scale. Of course, we’re in the business of arts, but we could be anything. I mean, you could be taking financial literacy classes; you could be taking ESL classes. Just by chance, this was after many trials and errors.

We’re 6 years old. Four years ago, we used to rent a building. I used to run this out of a friend’s apartment, out of an office based in Turtle Bay with no air-conditioner in the summer. I mean, we tried a lot of different things. And after it not working out, we luckily chanced upon the library system, which was perfect because we can work with them by offering our art classes and not be in the business of taking care of the space or even pay rent or pay for the utilities or any of that stuff. We can focus directly on the kids and pay for the art teacher to go there, pay for the art supplies, and it was a really good sharing economy model. The library didn’t have to pay us, which is a huge cost-saving on their side. I think roughly $18,000 worth of programming we’re offering free to the library, and then they get to offer a class that brings kids in.

Denver: A win-win all the way around. And it really is Airbnb. Its under-utilized capacity… and then tapping into it, and costing nobody, but being able to have this tremendous outcome as a result.

Adarsh: Exactly. It’s city infrastructure because the city is on the library… cities or counties, so we are basically– It’s like the library or the city is providing the hardware. We are providing the software for free.

Denver: If I were a listener, and I’m walking alongside you into one of these rooms in a library, describe to us what we would see, and what a typical class might look like.

Adarsh: It’s quite exciting. You go to a library. Each library has one artist who’s in charge of programming in that library. We select this artist at a very competitive process. For this year, the ratio is something like 1 to 10 applicants for every position available. And the artist is positioned at that library for the entire year. They’re, in a sense, the chief cultural officer of that library, right? The position is paid for by ProjectArt, and they collaborate with the branch librarian to make the most of their resources, their talents at that library, and the culture and the library’s resources.

The classes happen during after-school hours.They’re completely free for the kids. You walk into a class; the artist has set up their activity for the day. The classes are year-round, so it happens on the same after-school day and hour, every week for 30 weeks during the academic year, and we break for the summer. The classes are an hour long, so as a student, you go into class, only 15 students per class. It was a lot of mentorship. It’s a very high teacher to student ratio. We maintain that even though there are kids on the waiting list because we think either you get great mentorship, or it’s diluted and it doesn’t matter.

So, quality over quantity, and these are fantastic emerging artists we find. I wouldn’t be lying if I said our kids get better arts education than they get in private schools because these are artists who have shows. They are completely committed to it, and they are actual artists who have a studio space in the library. That’s what we offer them. We offer the artists a studio space in the library.

So, we need to make a greater effort in keeping artists in our cities; otherwise they leave because they can’t afford it. And arts are what makes the city livable, no matter how much wealth you have. It’s not the condos and the fancy cars. It’s the beauty and the culture, the community, all those things.

Denver: So, that is the other part of the business model?

Adarsh: Yes. That’s the second breakthrough. First was having it in libraries. Second was: How do we scale up effective human capital that’s invested in the community? What do artists need? Artists need studio spaces. I’m sure you know, there is a lack of affordable art studios in urban areas. I forgot the exact stat, but roughly, I think only 30% of studio spaces are in urban areas, whereas even just in the US, 70% of the population resides in urban areas.

So, we need to make a greater effort in keeping artists in our cities; otherwise they leave because they can’t afford it. And arts are what makes the city livable, no matter how much wealth you have. It’s not the condos and the fancy cars. It’s the beauty and the culture, the community, all those things. So we need to make a rare effort. Libraries do this. We are able to work with libraries to bring artists to communities.  So the kids love the program; their parents love it, and there’s a lot of collateral impact as well.

Denver: Yes, no question about it. You place a lot of importance in providing the opportunity for students to celebrate and display their work and to create their own mini-Mandela moments, if you will. How do you go about doing that?

Adarsh: That’s a great way to characterize it. I actually just took a note down when you said mini-Mandela moment because when I founded this program, it was after I had learned that children did not have arts education in the US…in Harlem, in the community I settled with, where I live.

It’s interesting because it was that moment when I realized arts was important to me as a kid. These are kids who need a place to let their minds breathe for them to discover themselves. As you know, education is so test-driven today. It’s all about standardized testing and filling in the right holes. Where is an actual room for children to discover who they are?

In this economy, in this world where jobs are changing, skills are changing rapidly, if you are just going to be– Going in the hamster wheel of filling in the right tests, passing the right tests, without really asking yourself: How do I effectively contribute? Who am I? What are my skills? What are my natural talents? What am I curious about? Then you are setting yourself up for, I think, uncertain times.

Denver: Sure. Obsolescence, as a matter of fact. I think between artificial intelligence and robotics, you have to focus on some of the things that really makes us human.

Adarsh: Absolutely. What makes us– Our goal is, in a world where robots have taken over every job, the job that human beings need to have… are going to have… how to tell the robots what to do. You can tell them what to do;  you can’t tell them what they already know. You have to be able to innovate. You have to be able to adapt. You have to be able to seek opportunities.

Arts does that to the brain in a very real way, but not in a market sense. It does it from: Well, how do I take X and Y? How do I connect the apple to the oranges and make something new? It’s the ability to connect the dots that can be applied to the market. It can be applied to solve social problems, political problems, all of those things. But it makes sure that it definitely connects you to who you are and makes you adapt to situations, makes you a possibility seeker, and someone who looks at the potential of things, as opposed to just rote learning.

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Adarsh Alphons and Denver Frederick at the AM970 The Answer Studio

Denver: When these kids are finished with their creation, they actually get a chance to display it in a gallery, right?

Adarsh: Yes. That is a part of the program that kids and families absolutely love. At the end of the year, we have an exhibition…usually at a proper gallery. We had a recent one in White Columns Gallery, which is in Chelsea.

Denver: Everybody was all dressed up. It’s a big night.

Adarsh: It really is. It really is. We have kids coming from all over New York. And we do this in all the cities; in Detroit, in Miami, and now launching in different cities as well. These are kids that don’t live in Manhattan. They live in the Bronx. They live out in Jamaica, Queens, and it’s a time where they’re part of an act—My kids have shown more in galleries than some artists I know, which is ridiculous and amazing.

Denver: But it’s also a great way to get people into the galleries.

Adarsh: It really is. I think our art world has a problem in that it’s not necessarily the most accessible of environments, and there’s a silent sign that says, “Keep away!” to the communities that actually live and contribute to the city like the communities that we serve. The stories of our kids who end up taking our program and then go on to get scholarships to university — it’s amazing. Like these kids are really on a path to success.

The exhibition aspect just makes them—I had one of my students walk up to me and said, “ProjectArt is the best thing that ever happened to me” which is amazing because the spaces, even the gallery space, is donated; the food and the reception is donated; the printing is now donated. I believe we’ve been working with Canon for that. Art supplies now are all donated, starting this fall. Blick Art Supplies is taking care of all the art supplies nationally. Slack, our communication tool, has put us on a non-profit package which makes it completely free for over 250 staff members. Huge! It’s amazing what’s out there if you’re able to leverage it, and again, bring the cost down.

Denver: That is a sweet business model. There’s a nice corollary to that program and it’s called “My Kid Could Do That.” Tell us how that works.

Adarsh: “My Kid Could Do That” is a benefit exhibition that we held. It was in the Spring, April 28, and the following day was a public exhibition. We wanted to do a benefit that would actually speak to the unique nature of the organization and really turn some heads. So, what we decided to do was display a childhood artwork done by some of the most important contemporary artists of the day. Artists who have museum shows and whose works go for millions of dollars, but display work that was done during their childhood before anyone could imagine who they would become.

We had 24 artists participate. There was Urs Fischer, Cecily Brown, Sanford Biggers, just an incredible group of artists. On the opposite wall, we had some of the contemporary pieces by those artists. As a fundraiser, it’s called “My Kid Could Do That” because if you look at the child artworks, you would say, “Well, my kid could do that.” The point is, let’s say, “Look, if your kid could do that, your kid could probably do this contemporary work, but you’re never going to know if you don’t give them some art supplies.”

I don’t really believe in the concept of genius. I think there is grit, I think there’s perseverance, and there is persistence. I think persistence isn’t recognized enough. Water dripping persistently can pierce a rock.

Denver: Well, let me ask you a question which is probably on a lot of people’s minds, and that is: Can you spot artistic genius from a very early age?

Adarsh: I don’t think so. I just don’t. I don’t think—I don’t really believe in the concept of genius. I think there is grit, I think there’s perseverance, and there is persistence. I think persistence isn’t recognized enough. Water dripping persistently can pierce a rock.

Denver: You’ve got to keep at it.

Adarsh: You’ve got to keep at it. There are kids who begin in our program with, so to speak, no talent. By the time they—even six weeks later– I’ve had folks come and say, “Adarsh, how do you find such talented kids?” I said, “What are you talking about, buddy? You should have just seen what they did, and this is who they are.”  But you give them a space to tell them there are no mistakes, and we’re not trying to tell them how to draw representational. We’re trying to get them to pursue the extent of their imagination and to really push it.  So amazing things start to happen.

So, yes, I don’t think there’s such thing as genius. I think there is opportunity. I think there is persistence. I think there is having a vision and encouraging kids to have a vision. The vision is really, yes, in our art classes, it’s about something visual, but actually, it’s not about that at all. Having a vision is having a vision at the end of the day, and you can apply that to being an entrepreneur, extending a department in your company, conducting a research that’s going to change the world, things like that.

Once you have the confidence to have a vision and to pursue it, and then you see it on a wall, and everyone’s admiring it… no one can take that moment away from you.

Denver: That’s great. Let’s return to libraries for a moment. In conducting these arts classes in the public library, has that changed the student’s relationship with your local library in a significant way?

Adarsh: Absolutely. Over 70% of our kids have said the program has built a sense of community in that library and beyond that library, because ultimately, libraries are a little like secular churches, so to speak, in each community. Anyone can go in; learning is boundless, and it’s free, and you can be anonymous. The good thing about our program, or what’s unique about our program, I would say rather, is: we’re using art classes as a means to attract kids into the library during after-school hours. Arts education is inaccessible to such a large extent  today. So many elementary schools do not receive even the most basic arts education. Add to that middle and high schools too.  Interestingly, only 15% of American youth who go to public schools are part of any after-school program. So 85% of kids in American public schools have nothing to do after school.

Denver: That’s an incredible stat.

Adarsh: It’s ridiculous. That’s the hours when youth are most vulnerable to behavior that is going to cause major detriments. From bullying to getting involved in activities that are not necessarily constructive. From smoking to marijuana, whatever it is.

Denver: Trouble.

Adarsh: Yes, exactly. We said for every child we recruit into the library, it’s one child less recruited from the guy on the street, right? So we use our classes to attract kids into the library. Roughly 7 of every 10 kids in ProjectArts program ends up picking up a book from the library after class. Over 80% come to the library after taking a ProjectArt class. For every 10 kids, they bring 6 of their friends into the library. They bring 6 of their families into the library. For every hour we get a child in the library, they spend multiple hours outside of that. So the leverage is in that child being there more; they’ll come into the library a lot more; they bring their friends there more; they advocate it furthermore, and it’s less time on the street.

Denver: And libraries just have to love it.

Adarsh: Libraries do love the program.

Denver: You’ve sort of alluded to before, ProjectArt, you’ve really scaled up quite quickly and quite effectively. You started in Harlem, and then all of a sudden, you’ve got a couple of dozen locations here in New York City. You mentioned Miami; you mentioned Detroit, and now we’re thinking Chicago and Los Angeles, and we continue on. But people are always so curious about how you go about scaling up an organization. Tell us, Adarsh, how you’ve gone about doing it, and a little bit more about your plans for the future.

Adarsh: We were last—The first five years, we basically were hard-baking the model in New York, right? Truly trying to figure out what works and really understanding the library space. We focused just on libraries. I think what’s helped us scale up, and generally what I’ve learned from my research, is that organizations who focus, companies who focus, really get to know one space so well that you know it almost as well as anyone else, like the libraries in that space. Like we know what a library wants even before they tell us what they want because we’ve really studied that space. We know what works for them; we know what data works for them; we know that they like the fact that it’s free. They like the fact that we’re able to bring additional kids in there, and there’s a whole sort of leverage happening.  And the kids pick up books, and all those things add memberships to other programs the library has.

I think focusing has been very important. We focus only on libraries. We said, “No community centers, no schools, no churches, none of that stuff.” Just in that space. What I realized was there are 17,000 branch libraries in the US. IMLS, Institute of Museum and Library Services has  data, and all the data is available online. It’s a federal agency that surveys all the libraries. American Library Association has information. So we said, “How about we focus only on libraries? We’d be able to get the art supplies there, send the art teacher there, work with the branches, have contact with the library systems.”

We want to grow in New York, and our model was: every city has to fundraise and support itself. So we’re not just sort of thinning ourselves out, which is a question people have. If you’re going to grow, how are you going to thin yourself too much? We said, “No. Let’s have every city fundraise for itself, and we give ourselves a year in advance to find those funds for the city. So over the last year, we’ve been working on looking at Chicago and Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. So for this whole year, we’ve been fundraising and we launch in September there. The year before that, for Detroit and Miami, we did the same thing.

Because the program makes so much sense in that costs are avoided because we don’t pay for rent and all that stuff; the average cost for an after-school program nationally is $3,000 per child. At ProjectArt, it’s $500 per child. Right? That’s an actual cost-saving we were able to achieve, and we believe we have to be competitive. Nonprofits are in the business of attracting charitable dollars, partnership dollars from corporations, and all of those things. If you’re not constantly finding ways to deal with better data, serve more students better, right? So it’s $ 500 per child, even with the child getting excellent art education. The mentorship is so high. It’s really great.

In terms of scaling up, it was focus; it was economics, but it was also thinking: Well, why can’t we go to L.A.? What’s stopping us? What I realized doing this is: if it makes sense, if you talk to them, the library system, and they’re like, “We love it!  When can you do it?” Then just get on a plane! Don’t second guess yourself!

Denver: Don’t overthink it.

Adarsh: Don’t overthink it and—

Denver: Get out there.

Adarsh: Exactly. At this point, I think it’s like anything else. Like you should—When you have to go and talk to someone, just get on the plane. Just do it. And so—

Denver: But you know what’s amazing? You’re on your way to becoming, if you haven’t already, the largest arts program in the United States, and you don’t have a single classroom. So that has 21st century all over it. When you’re scaling up like this – and I know every Founder and CEO is really concerned about this – the corporate culture, what’s your thinking around that?

 

Adarsh: Culture is very, very important to an organization or a company. I’m sure every Founder and CEO thinks about it. It’s something that has to be scaled up carefully with the organization, and the founder and the senior staff in a way… they want to look out for it, make sure it’s maintained. I think you have to—It’s delicate. You have to create an environment where folks can work and learn, and in an economy where people get a new job every two or three years—The state of the fact is people might leave. Every two to three years, you have to train someone new, and that’s always an expense. But I think you have the right expectations. You have confidence in your staff, and you let them learn and adopt from the job, and that’s it. That’s all you can do.

Denver: That’s all you can do. Let me close with this, Adarsh, which is:  Why…are arts still the first thing to go when the budget gets tight? Because it seems so much of what we’re taught in school is now available in the palm of your hand, on your phone, and we can retrieve that information instantaneously. It doesn’t provide the advantage that it once did. The question is: Why are we not making those corresponding shifts and priorities about what stays and what goes?

Adarsh: I think it’s a very complicated question. I think it’s—It makes me uncomfortable to answer this question because, unfortunately, it’s tied to politics. I think policy makers generally are short-sighted. We think in election cycles; we think in favorability of these things.  And arts doesn’t do well on paper. You have to have someone who’s clearly a long-term thinker to be able to understand that education is a strategic investment by any nation. It’s not meant for short-term results. Yes, there’s vocational training, and it’s absolutely important.  But education in the US or in any country is investing. It’s a strategic investment in creating a workforce. It has to be done with the mindset of extremely long thinking, which is how do you prepare someone for an economy that you do not know, right? That you absolutely cannot even predict?

Apps are so big right now. I believe you’re in the young age of the Internet where cyber security is a threat.  And we have our social media, as you know. It’s an echo-chamber, to a certain extent. How are we going to grow out of all this? It’s all going to change, but change is the  normal now, right? How do you invest? What kind of education do you have in a world that is changing faster than anyone could ever guess, and you’re never going to know what X, Y, and Z is going to be doing.  What skills do you need to acquire?  What companies do you need to navigate?  What social circumstances do you need to navigate?

Denver: Well, we are preparing students for a future that, in many cases, is not going to exist.  And probably arts could help address that future as well, if not better than anything else.

Adarsh: Absolutely.

Denver: Well, Adarsh Alphons, the Founder and CEO of ProjectArt, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website and how people can get involved in supporting this work.

Adarsh: Our website is ProjectArt.org. We love hearing from anyone and everyone. Tell us if ProjectArt can be in your city. Reach out to us, and then we’ll talk to you. We are rapidly scaling up. This year we launch in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, in which we’ll be in six cities, some of the major ones in this country. Of course, learn about our finances; learn about our economics; learn about how transparent we are, our data, our impact. If you go to the Crisis page on the website, you will see the impact of the arts. Take a look at it. All the research sources are cited right there. We also have data that is particular to ProjectArt in terms of what we did in the past year. Please get involved. Write to us; volunteer with us; bring your companies to partner with us. We love corporate partnerships.  And, yes! Donate, of course!

Denver: Sounds super. Well, thank you, Adarsh. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.

Adarsh: My pleasure.

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Adarsh Alphons and Denver Frederick


The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving

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