When the coronavirus struck in 2020, ¡CityArts! ended its on-site sessions early, but they quickly replaced the classroom with specialized art kits, which volunteers personally delivered to students’ homes. They also created a virtual “art club,” which helped students connect with each other and stoked their creative energies during the initial lockdown. By July, ¡CityArts! started hosting in-person sessions again, this time with even smaller class sizes (10 in all) and mostly outdoor activities.
“It was a lot, but it was really worth it to have everyone in person, even if it was on a smaller scale,” says Camille Montano, program manager at ¡CityArts!. “Our kids were really needing to see each other and get messy in the studios. They did a lot of projects outside, took a lot of walks. We tried to minimize being in an enclosed space for more than an hour. They were really craving that social interaction.”
¡CityArts! is free. That is, students don’t pay a nickel to take classes there. They enroll for an afternoon session, or they sign up for the ¡CityArts! summer camp, and then they have a chance to learn from working Providence artists. That tuition – or lack thereof – says a lot about the organization’s 28-year-old mission.
“We started in the basement of a church,” says Montano, “and we have since grown into an after-school program. Our real purpose is to provide equitable arts education for students who might not receive it in school.”
Yes, even in the middle of a pandemic. At any given time, ¡CityArts! will work with 40 to 60 students. Classes are always limited to 15 participants, plus a teaching artist and two volunteers. But even now, as COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on public education, ¡CityArts! has enrolled 22 kids for the winter term.
“We try to keep it small on purpose,” says Montano, “to focus on that relationship between teaching artists and the students.”
¡CityArts! has always been scrappy. The organization was founded in 1992 by renowned social activist Sister Ann Keefe; its original intent was to introduce young residents of the South Side to fine arts. Today, ¡CityArts! is open to any student, provided they live in Providence and are between the ages of eight and 14. That said, ¡CityArts! is designed for youths who have limited access to arts education, and most come from underserved communities. The organization has a close relationship with Providence After School Alliance.
¡CityArts! is just as valuable for the five teaching artists and their many volunteer mentors, who have a chance to share their skills with a fresh generation. Their offerings are diverse; Noelle Sands teaches mixed media, Mariana Roa Oliva teaches “The Art of Words,” and Susana Oliveros Amaya introduces students to sculpture. Past workshops include a clay studio, mural making, and hip-hop dance, among countless other subjects. Instruction routinely takes place in both English and Spanish.
Like all cultural institutions in the past year, ¡CityArts! is playing it safe, and there’s no telling when its operations will return to normal. For now, the program remains a touchstone for kids yearning for creative stimulation.
“Kids are learning concrete art, but it’s really more of a community space,” says Montano. “We love being in person, but our priority is definitely safety.”