by Suzanne Cloud
When you walk through the public space called the Fareway in Chestnut Hill (behind the Chestnut Hill Hotel), you might notice the astonishing artwork on the outside walls that bursts into your line of sight and stops you midstride. You look once, twice, then move closer (forgetting about your errands) and see that these works of art were done by children. Your world brightens a bit as you continue through the breezeway to finish your day. The sincerity of the surprise stays with you, though. You wonder, who thought to do this?
Barbara Chandler Allen, a former Chestnut Hill resident who now lives in Lafayette Hill, an older woman finishing up her primary professional career in art collections and curation, was well aware of the insistent slashing of arts funding in Philadelphia area public schools and the shortsightedness of such an approach to achieve a well-rounded education. The absence was there right in front of her, so she immediately embarked on an “encore career” after retirement with her son Roger, co-founder and creative director, and Alex Boatman, manager of operations, right by her side. “We saw something broken, and we tried to fix it … This was my time to give back.”
Allen isn’t alone in this feeling; many baby boomers after successful careers have felt the need to devote themselves to the needs of society. According to encore.org, more people are over 50 than under 18, and this valuable resource of older talent needs to be nurtured and used. So, in 2008, in keeping with that zeitgeist, Barbara and her team (which includes Katie Latona, her studio manager) started Fresh Artists, a nonprofit that encourages children to create artwork that is then curated and brokered, ending with reproductions sold to companies and organizations as décor for installations in corporate offices or public spaces.
The children retain the copyright and their originals, and the buyers license the digital images — fulfilling Fresh Artists’ motto, “Great Art Doing Good,” to inspire the public with their mission of supplying free art supplies and programs to teachers in the most under-funded schools in the area. Allen’s idea generates from the surety that “the art never stops speaking to the workers in the corporate environment we serve. They see the kid’s name, the grade and the school.”
But the Fresh Artists’ mission is richer than just providing paper, watercolors, pastels and brushes to kids who don’t have them. According to Allen, this idea transforms children into philanthropists and changemakers, empowering them by “making them an integral part, a catalytic part, of fixing a problem in public education.” Another essential part of the mission is advocacy rooted in the belief that every child has a right to a good, quality public education, not just the kids whose parents can afford private schools.
This important nonprofit delivers innovative programs and supplies to schools that have experienced the severest cutbacks, delivering over $1.5 million in help over the last 10 years to some of the poorest schools in the nation.
This initiative took wings when founder and executive director Barbara Chandler Allen won AARP’s prestigious Purpose Prize in 2013, and the nonprofit was featured on the The Today Show on NBC. All at once, Marriott Hotels got involved. So, the 400 communities in the U.S. that had a Marriott hotel gave Fresh Artists a foothold to connect with art teachers and schools across the country.
There are a few ways that children’s art gets into the boardroom: One is the All City Art Exhibition every year. Allen said, “That’s where you get the strongest art,” but teachers can also send any student art they think is worth a look, and submissions can be uploaded on the Fresh Artists website. The recognition does wonders for the budding artists in the city, inspiring them to make more. On the testimonial section of the Fresh Artists website, one 6th grader said, “Used to be my artwork ended up on the refrigerator. Not anymore! It’s got a job helping other kids. I like that!”
Germantown native Quinn Donover, 24, a Jenks School alumna, was an early artist who had her piece, “Crazy Cat,” chosen when she was in 3rd grade, and she later contributed another one when she was a senior in high school. She did an internship at Fresh Arts for a year. “When I started, I thought about every part of this, their philosophy, how they do things, the way they interact with the children, their ideas about art and philanthropy. Barbara had this pretty grand idea, and then she actually MADE it happen. That was really a big inspiration to me to see that.” Donover, now a graduate student at Widener University, remembers being startled seeing her picture hanging at Temple University when she was visiting and choosing a college. She stopped and exclaimed, “Oh, that’s my art!”
According to Allen, “The Kids (‘First Givers’) allow us to use a digital image of art that we select for the expressed purpose of helping other kids. Nothing else. And corporate/ business donors (‘Second Givers’) make donations to our nonprofit, which enables us to buy and deliver art supplies to needy schools. About 95% of our donations are corporate. Individuals MAY do this too, but our art is pretty big for homes!
“We’ve coined the term ‘lateral philanthropy,’ meaning the (unexpected) child’s gift is equally important (and consequential) as the (usual) adult/corporate gift. These corporate donors get a simple reproduction of kids’ art as a thank-you gift, like Channel 12 gives us simple, inexpensive thank-you gifts like tote bags, golf umbrellas, etc. And schools get innovative programs and art materials they otherwise would never afford.”
Fresh Artists has decorated and transformed the local offices of Comcast, Bayada Home Health Care, Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, Franklin Court, Drexel University and many more in addition to the Fareway of Chestnut Hill through the talent and generosity of more than 1,700 kids in low-income K-through-12 schools. Barbara Allen estimates that more than 330,000 children have been touched by this work, and hopefully many more will be in the future.
On a hopeful note, Allen said that arts advocacy has helped. “This year the School District of Philadelphia is fully funding arts and music (after 10 years of cutbacks) at $10 per child.” But she added that we cannot be complacent since “This can change on a dime.”
For more information, visit freshartists.org. Local freelance writer Suzanne Cloud, who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in American Studies, is also a founder of Jazz Bridge, a local nonprofit that aids jazz musicians, and a longtime vocalist herself who performed on Dec. 30 at Paris Bistro.