Not-So-Starving Artists

Article excerpt


Artists for Humanity students are also employees

Next year, Artists for Humanity (AFH) plans to move into a new 23,500-square-foot building in South Boston - with art studios, offices, exhibition galleries, and, it's safe to say, "green" expectations.

The nonprofit organization, which operates afterschool art programs for inner-city Boston teens, is spending about 6 $6 6 million on the building. The exterior will be constructed from recycled corrugated metal. Interior light fixtures will be energy-efficient. The facility will use solar panels and a geothermal heat pump to meet all of the organization's energy needs. Last year, the Boston Globe hailed the planned building for its "spirit of entrepreneurial creativity."

At least as striking, however, is the fact that AFH plans to sell excess energy back to the city. It also plans to raise money by renting out its student art galleries for special events. It is in these details - where edgy nonprofit meets for-profit gallery meets power plant - that the organization's unique approach to revenue generation becomes plain. As Susan Rodgerson, AFH's executive director and founder, puts it, "We're based on a small business model, rather than a social service model."

AFH traces its founding to the summer of 1991, when Rodgerson, an artist, opened her own studio to six inner-city teenagers she had met while running a mural project at a Boston public school. Rodgerson says the students began showing up daily, talking with her about art, and painting "on everything they could find." She bought them art supplies and lunch and drove them home in the evenings.

When the new school year rolled around, Rodgerson says, the students wanted to continue their studio visits, but she had a major problem. 'At the end of the summer, I told them, Tm broke,'" Rodgerson recalled. "[I knew] we would have to find a way to pay for our supplies if we wanted to keep going."

That's when the students came up with an idea: They could airbrush T-shirts, sell them, and use the proceeds to buy supplies. That fall, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management gave AFH permission to sell T-shirts in its lobby, the group earned $1,400-on its first day.

Today, AFH offers some 60 low-income youths supplies, instruction, and studio space. What sets these students apart is that they are not simply participants: They get paid - $6.75 to $8.50 an hour for creating their art. They also earn a 50 percent commission on sales; the rest of the proceeds support AFH programming.

In addition to the obvious benefit of a source of income, AFH teaches these low-income youths how to produce, market, and gain income from their creativity. "It's all about pushing them out there," said Damon Butler, assistant artistic director and one of Rodgerson's original students, "so they can promote themselves."

Molding artistic teens into professional, working artists in the employment of AFH is not without its challenges. One of the largest obstacles is teaching them about the value of work and work habits. If her students fail to stay on task while waiting for their muses, Rodgerson reminds them that they've got a job to do. …