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Art Class

Barbara Allen founded Fresh Artists to help keep art in schools by turning student works into valuable collectibles. Now she’s helping them plan for the future

Barbara Allen founded Fresh Artists to help keep art in schools by turning student works into valuable collectibles. Now she’s helping them plan for the future

School Budget Cuts! No $ for Crayons! No $ for Art Teachers!

When those headlines screamed at Philadelphians in 2007 most people just cursed or shrugged, maybe read the story, turned the page and wrote it off as just another depressing, unsolvable problem: schools failing to provide safety and opportunity for our children.

But one person was mad as hell and decided not to take it.

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Meet Barbara Allen, joyful disruptor, troublemaker when trouble needs making.

An outside-the-box thinker, Allen, who has been connected to the Philadelphia School District as a parent, mentoring coach, administrator and citizen, found an empty box waiting to be filled. The District was opening its new headquarters on North Broad Street, a gaping, soulless space that needed some big-time energy. It cried out for color, action, LIFE! And what’s more energetic and life-enhancing than children’s art? Allen, who had worked as a museum registrar, says that the District Superintendent called her one day and said, “Barbara, I want to see art everywhere I look!”

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Allen remembered there’d recently been a great display of school children’s art in City Hall. So she poked around and bothered people until she found out where all that art was — actually it was still there in City Hall. Next, she and her son Roger, an industrial and graphic designer, went to look at the art. It was gorgeous and it was there for the taking. Problem was, how to display it? Framing cost money. The art was random-sized and bulky to haul. No funds for that, of course. Luckily, son Roger, was a computer guy and design dynamo. “Digital,” he cried. One word did the trick.

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And that was the beginning of Fresh Artists. They digitized the art, blew it up, printed it on giant boards and stuck them to the walls of the School District’s atrium, where anyone and everyone involved in education saw them when they visited. Socks were knocked off. But it didn’t stop there.

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Allen came up with another genius idea: start a non-profit to keep art in Philadelphia schools! Take these masterpieces by kindergartners, grade schoolers and teens, and get them out there: show them to corporations — law offices, banks, nonprofits, even hotels with dreary corporate art on their walls. They’ll love them. They can give donations to Fresh Artists and choose which of these gorgeous pieces to acquire and install in their spaces. This begins in 2008, during the worst budget years, when the District is laying off art teachers, and many schools have no money for materials. Fresh Artists is established to let teachers apply for great new stuff: crayons! paper! clay! paint, even programs. Art in the schools finds a new champion.

A Fresh Artists painting installed in the CHOP office of adolescent medicine. (source)

The biggest innovation: kids who made the art have donated it to the nonprofit organization. So they become — ta-da! — philanthropists. The money their art brings in goes to buy supplies and programs for a whole new set of kids their own age. Fresh Artists has even produced a book about the process, called Pablo: The Philly Philanthropist. It’s a virtuous circle that has made enormous ripples, first in Philly, now nationally. “Any full-time art teacher in a qualified school can apply for a grant from Fresh Artists,” says Allen, whose national network includes Marriott’s SpringHill Suites, Nicetown CDC, Vanguard, and Red Cross House.

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There’s more — a product line at Crate & Barrel, board games, coasters, programs with art teachers and restaurateurs. With its connections to young artists and arts professionals, Fresh Artists is also who Philly turns to more and more often with arts questions — SafeKidsStories did when we needed help with our #VoteThatJawn animated video. What other partner could have found — in one day — 19- and 17-year-old animators to provide beautiful background images for this 2018 registration video? Plus high-quality posters and stickers and more — good-looking merch to communicate the idea that voting was not only important, but important and cool. And because innovation runs through Fresh Artists’ DNA, when the Philadelphia School District was able to restore its art teachers to schools, the organization switched its Philly focus to yet another brilliant scheme.

Cool Jobs, the most fun take on the old career-day model, exposes seventh graders to all the careers available to kids who thrive and shine making art in school. You know, the brilliant young painter who can’t read at grade level for the life of her, but who can light up a classroom of peers with a funny portrait of the teacher, or a gripping image of the neighborhood bully. Those latent creators recognize themselves in the fabulous, sometimes fabulously offbeat, professionals they meet at the annual Cool Jobs Expo. These are “highly successful working artists,” Allen emphasizes, people who design everything from buildings to slippers, who make clothing, wrap buses, restore artwork in museums, paint murals, illustrate magazines, and otherwise make meaning with images — and make a living doing it.

What happens when one joyful, brilliant, and persistent disrupter, along with a problem-solving digital mastermind, connect with the enormous creative energy of children? It’s a collaboration that changes lives.

Rebecca Sinkler is editor of Safe Kids Stories. This is one in a series of articles running on The Citizen and Safe Kids Stories.

Caption: Barbara Allen, founder and president of Philadelphia non-profit Fresh Artists; Photo by freshartists

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