As St. Louis ArtWorks celebrates its silver anniversary, its executive director pauses both to reflect on the nonprofit’s past and to anticipate its future.
According to the mission statement on its website, ArtWorks seeks “to broaden educational and career opportunities for youth in the St. Louis region through apprenticeships in the arts and through community collaborations.” It also seeks “to create positive educational opportunities through art for youth through paid apprenticeships.”
Priscilla Block, the nonprofit’s outgoing executive director, first fondly relates the peregrinations of its earliest years, which sound more than a little … adventurous.
“The first summer I was hired as [executive director], 2001, we faced heat, rain and storms while having our different disciplines under tents powered by extension cords,” Block says of ArtWorks’ then-current location, where downtown St. Louis’ Citygarden now stands. “The one thing the teens really liked was their ability to go out to lunch anywhere downtown.”
Block next details expansion-related re-locations over time to Adams Elementary School in St. Louis’ Grove business district, the Centene Center for Arts and Education in that municipality’s Grand Center and, in 2012, St. Louis’ Old North neighborhood.
“After three years there,” she says, “we still needed more space, so we decided on the place we are in now, in the Loop East [district], for our new home – all in one location, with lots of room to grow into an even brighter future.”
Amid all of those peregrinations, Block recounts various victories for ArtWorks, the first involving a competition for social entrepreneurship sponsored by the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Washington University.
“We were the first nonprofit to win this competition, with our social venture Boomerang Press,” she says. “From there, teaching youth entrepreneurship became ingrained in all our programming.”
Such programming, the website explains, “takes place after school and on weekends during the fall and spring, and five hours a day, five days a week for six weeks during the summer.” Professional artists mentor socially underserved 14- to 19-year-olds in developing not only art skills but also communication and general life skills.
“Each program combines in-depth art instruction, employment training and life skills focused on personal health, fiscal literacy and environmental stewardship,” the website continues. “In all programs, teens earn a stipend, are required to have a bank account and attend financial literacy training. Activities such as client meetings, open house events and public sales give apprentices a chance to practice presentation and public speaking skills, and leave better prepared for the future with community contacts, résumés and a portfolio of work.”
Block cites ArtWorks’ “greatest success” as winning the President’s Council on Youth in the Arts Award from former first lady Michelle Obama in the White House. However, Block names the nonprofit’s participants over time as “really the stars and the reasons for our successes."
“I have had the privilege of watching thousands of teens benefit from their time at ArtWorks, some who have come back to work for us as teaching artists now," Block says.
“I think the program has lots of opportunities to grow in our location in the Loop East, as soon as we pass the economic challenges facing us today with the COVID-19 crisis. … With many of our alumni now adults with children of their own, I see them getting more involved with all parts of the organization’s future – not only as artists but board members, too.”
One more 25th-anniversary challenge – a bittersweet one – looms yet.
“I will be retiring in July after 20 years as the [executive director], so bringing on a new [executive director] will add new vitality and ideas to help realize the dreams of all involved,” Block says. “I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to make an impact on so many lives, and I look forward to watching [ArtWorks] grow in the future.”
St. Louis ArtWorks, 5959 Delmar Blvd., St. Louis, 314-899-9734, stlartworks.org
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