Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency committed to building creative communities, and inspiriting creative minds.
Susan Rodgerson: We speak 13 languages in our studio, they represent kids from across the city, and they come to AFH for a job. They come to get paid a wage and create art, and fulfill design services for businesses.
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. My guest today is Susan Rodgerson, Executive Director of Artists For Humanity. An amazing organization Susan, that you started in a gallery on a street corner?
Susan Rodgerson: Thank you for inviting me Anita, it’s a pleasure to be here. You know, I’m a big fan of the Mass Cultural Council, I really support your work, and I’m thrilled to be part of the Creative Minds discussion. Yes, I did. I funded Artists For Humanity nearly 25 years ago, in a very small studio, in what is now 450 Harrison. It was at that time just a big old, you know, sort of semi renovated warehouse where artists went, and as the young people I brought there said “Vibed.” They didn’t know the artists– the kids that I was working with from Boston’s neighborhood had no idea that artists all went to studios and did work, so that was opening number one <laughs>. Artists For Humanity was founded with this simple idea that I could engage urban young people, who had very little exposure to art making and the art and culture world, to collaborative art making that would give them a voice, in the business community. So, as an entrepreneur I thought I could make these large-scale really cool paintings with these really cool kids, and then sell them to, you know, places like law offices and banks. Back in the 90s, Bank of Boston a was a very receptive potential customer, and people like that. And of course my idea was to get the voice of these very underrepresented young people on the walls of corporations, so that they could see what they had to say, and what their value is. And, I met this group of young people at a middle school in Roxbury, who were so hungry for this opportunity, that after we’d made this really cool painting, they asked if they could make another painting, because it was summer and they had nowhere to go, nothing to do. And, at the time, I had a studio where I was working on a body of work for a gallery show. The studio was being paid for by the gallery, and it was like this really sweet deal for an artist, and, I stopped everything. Those kids came to my studio and I said “What the heck, I don’t care what I have to say, this is way better. This is much more important.” And really, that was how it was born. The summer was incredibly productive, these kids were painting on things they were dragging in from the street. We had no money, we had, you know, no resources really, except the space and the intention to work together, and figure it out. And that we did, by the end of the summer, they were bringing their friends and before you know it, it was packed with kids and hip-hop music. And we were painting on found objects, and going out and selling the stuff on the side of the road. And, you know, the idea was we could make things, sell it and make more things. And that’s how the venture was started.
Anita Walker: And 25 years later?
Susan Rodgerson: Wow, 25 years later, of course my life has been completely transformed. My art is people now, my art is working with a very diverse population of young people that represent– we speak 13 languages in our studio, they represent kids from across the city and they come to AFH for a job. They come to get paid a wage, and create art and fulfill design services for businesses. It’s almost exactly what I had started with, but on steroids, you know, because we’re doing everything now. As a painter, I started with painting, but before too long I had incredible friends and artists who donated their time to open the photography studio, and the screen-printing studio and the design department, and the sculpture department. And you know, now we’re in our own facility which we’ve designed and built–
Anita Walker: The EpiCenter?
Susan Rodgerson: The EpiCenter. The Artists For Humanity EpiCenter. You might have been there for a party or two because it’s a party central. And it’s the first Platinum LEED Certified building in the city. And you know, we really are committed to a sustainable future, for the young people that we know and love.
Anita Walker: So you are working literally with hundreds of kids now?
Susan Rodgerson: Hundreds of kids. We have 300 kids employed annually, you know, annually, give or take 10 or 20–
Anita Walker: And this is a job?
Susan Rodgerson: This is a job.
Anita Walker: This isn’t afterschool entertainment?
Susan Rodgerson: That’s right. It’s nine dollars an hour, the minimum wage is going up to 10 next year, it’s going to kill us <laughs>, but we want it. And teens are– I know it’s hard to believe, they’re paid to come and express themselves, make paintings which we lease for public exhibition, and we get commissions and make sales. Their pay–
Anita Walker: How much have you sold in the last year?
Susan Rodgerson: We have– last year, we earned just under 1.5 million dollars, from the fine art design services that we provide.
Anita Walker: And where did that money go?
Susan Rodgerson: That money, a million of it, nearly a million of it went right into the pockets of the youth that are employed. But the really cool part about having a job as an artist, is that when you’re– first of all, they have to show up on time, so you know, we can really instill a kind of discipline that is required to progress as an artist. If you don’t show up on time, there’s 100 kids on the waiting list. They’re waiting for your jobs. So there’s a lot of peer pressure and organizational pressure for kids to treat this work seriously, and make sure that they do their minimum of six hours, and maximum of 12 hours a week working in the studio. But you know, that helps us to sort of force them to work. And so, when you come and visit and you see 100 kids in a painting studio, you never see anybody not working, because they know there’s someone waiting for their job if they’re not doing it.
Anita Walker: A lot like the real world?
Susan Rodgerson: A lot like the real world. But the coolest part is that, when you’re making art you know, you’re progressing, and you’ve got constant feedback, you know? You can do something today, you can make a line, you can capture a face that you couldn’t do yesterday. And so that really drives the kids and motivates them to work harder, to do more. Because you know, unlike school, nothing against education, they’re getting this instant feedback, and it’s all about them, and their focus, and their discipline and their practice.
Anita Walker: And you don’t <inaudible> the kids ahead of time–
Susan Rodgerson: It’s a great metaphor for life.
Anita Walker: You don’t require that they give you a portfolio to be accepted into this program?
Susan Rodgerson: No, it is first come, first serve. There is no previous artistic experience required. There is really nothing required, other than you show up for the interview on time, and then you get on a list. So you have to fill out the application, you have to do the steps that one needs take to get any job, and you have to do that efficiently and effectively. If not, you start back at the beginning. You have to come back to the open house again, if you miss your appointment, whatever the excuse, train, you know, sorry. “Start back at the beginning and then get back on the list again.” So we really instill a seriousness to the work and you know, the appreciation that you’re getting paid to do something really fun <laughs>. You know, I mean we have to have a little reality in there.
Anita Walker: And what happens at the end? Talk about some of the kids who’ve gone through the program?
Susan Rodgerson: Wow. Well, we aim– I will say the criteria is that you are Boston resident, or you attend a Boston school, so it’s kind of one and the same. We like to start with kids who are in the freshman and sophomore year of high school, so that we can have enough of an impact on them. We have close to 70 percent of our kids who are engaged with us for a year or more, and usually, if it’s two years or more, I think it’s down to like 50 percent. It’s because they’re interested in an arts career, and they know they’re going to get the most experience and preparation they can at Artists For Humanity. So it’s serious work and we treat it very seriously. And just this year, 100 percent of our teens, that was 32 I believe, graduated high school on time, and were all accepted into college.
Anita Walker: So, once again, you started in a little studio in a warehouse, you absolutely burst out of that and now you’re at the EpiCenter, and you need to grow again?
Susan Rodgerson: Yes. We do, we do need to grow. We were very fortunate to design and build the EpiCenter, when our lease was up with the Boston Wharf company, where we had a giant size loft for years, which allowed us to really build the organization. We had space and no money, so we traded studios with artists who mentored teens. So we got all the way there without a lot of resources, and then it was time to do something about our long-term housing and stability, and we build the EpiCenter. And you know, we knew going into the first building that it was probably smaller than we would have liked, it was a little smaller than our big loft. But we’d never raised a lot of money at that time. So it was important that we started and built a strong foundation, which we did. As you know, we’ve been very successful over the last decade, we’ve increased our youth population, we’ve increased our revenue, we’ve really also taught young people about sustainability by building the first Platinum LEED building, which is the EpiCenter, in the city of Boston, which was really a great testament to sustainability, because we built it affordably as an example to others. We acquired the property adjacent to our current facility two years ago, generously from Procter & Gamble, and we are now tripling the size of our facility. So–
Anita Walker: And this is another fabulously exciting project. What you do within the building, is exciting, but you’re not content to just build another building?
Susan Rodgerson: No. We have to keep pioneering sustainability. You know, as a life-long environmentalist, and as someone that works so closely with young people, I know these kids are concerned, okay? They don’t have the resources, or the experience to yet make an impact on this, other than to carry that torch. And I believe that we are encouraging hundreds of young people to get motivated around the environment. We have to follow a Platinum LEED Certified building. So we’ve done some research, and we’ve determined that it is possible that we can build the first energy positive facility on the entire eastern seaboard. It will only be one of five or so buildings in the country of its size, to actually create enough sustainable energy, plus five percent in one year. So we will produce five percent more energy than we use, in our first year of operation, and that is our goal. And that will set a new standard. And I think it’s doable, it a very tight urban site and we have our engineers and architects scratching their heads and sharpening their pencils. But we have an amazing, committed team of, you know, very well educated and determined to achieve this goal.
Anita Walker: You’re going to be using some materials and things that we haven’t seen in Boston, ever?
Susan Rodgerson: That’s right. We have– we’re calling it a partnership, okay? So we’re reaching out to the people that are helping us to make this happen, to bring their resources to the table, and to really help us make the expanded EpiCenter, be a showcase for sustainability. One incredible donation that we recently received was from the Cabot Corporation in Boston. Which is based in Boston, it’s a couple of hundred years old, really established firm. And they have come up with an incredible insulating product called “Aerogel,” which is made from water, and it’s like these absolutely weightless little bubbles that you put between two pieces of glass, and it is a super insulator. It also lets light in, diffused light into a building which lowers your need for electricity during the day, and it’s made in Germany, but developed by Cabot. And, it also is a sustainable product in its production. It does not produce any toxins in the production of this great material. So they’re excited, and they’ve donated one million dollars of Aerogel to do our building. And we’re very, very happy to be able to really make a statement with them that this is a product of the future, for the future. And it solves a lot of the problems that prevent buildings from being sustainable. So, that’s one. We have other really interesting companies from Europe that are going to profile their products that are not yet introduced, or they don’t have a market for them in the US. So lighting and furniture, that’s also a super sustainable will be highlighted, and showcased. And so, for us of course, that means more people coming to the EpiCenter, coming to Artists For Humanity to see this building, and to experience these products. So you know, we could turn those people into clients, for our creative services, into supporters of our organization. And so, we welcome the opportunity to showcase people in that way.
Anita Walker: You known first and foremost, what we love about Artists For Humanity is that you’re transforming lives. I mean you’re making such an enormous difference in the lives of young people who come through your programs. But, you don’t confine your work to the walls of the building. Your neighborhood has changed, as a result of the fact that you are there and the EpiCenter is there. The artwork that the kids make that’s on the walls throughout the neighborhood, the whole development around the EpiCenter, I’m sure you were largely a catalyst for. Inside the new building, you have some other things going on, that are going to attract community members?
Susan Rodgerson: Yes, we do. You know, this first phase of the EpiCenter was, as I said earlier, was smaller than the space we’d been working before. So, it was really completely dedicated to the youth programming. And because we built it on a very tight budget, it made it difficult to have various programs happening at any given time. It’s completely the dedicated to the teen workforce program, and creative jobs program. We call it “Creative Teens, Creative Jobs.” And the new facility will be three times the size, well combined, it will be three times what it is today. And largely, a section of the building will be dedicated to community activities. We’ll have a gallery, a store, and a café. So we’ll have reason for people to come in and hang out, and get to know us better. Right now, you know, the building you walk by it, and you go, “Wow, that’s cool but what’s going on in there?” We want everyone to know what’s going on in there, and we’ve got some great plans. You know, the gallery will be somewhat unusual in that it will profile really underrepresented artists from around the country, around the globe. We hope to find and we know many street artist and people that don’t have a large enough voice, and we hope to bring them to Boston, and we hope to really provide really interesting things for people to enjoy, and engage with Artists For Humanity through.
Anita Walker: So, give us little insight. Tell us the story of one young person who’s gone through your program that just sticks in your mind, that you think “This is why I get up every day, and do this.”
Susan Rodgerson: Well, there’s a lot of great stories, but I have to go back to the beginning. Because, I started with only five kids in my studio and one of them– and he was the most, dare I say ambitious or committed. His name is Carlo Lewis, and he was born in Jamaica, and was living in Boston. And, really I don’t think had quite found his community of peers. Because he was very ambitious and a little different, like most creative people are. But he really grabbed the opportunity at Artists For Humanity, and he was the one that was showing up in the morning waiting for me to open the door. I was driving him home, last to leave at night. And this kid was just hungry for every opportunity he could have. And he stayed with us his entire high school career from– I met him when he was just 14, and got a full scholarship to RISD <sic> and became an architect. And then, came back to Boston upon graduation, and went to work on designing the first Platinum LEED Certified building in Boston, our EpiCenter. So that’s a really full circle story, and I’m really excited that he has moved back to Boston. He moved away for a while, with his lovely family and is now on our board. So I am really excited to have him still part of our community, and to bring the passion to the work, and the understanding of the value that we bring to the kids in the city. And he can speak from experience, you know, he needed opportunities, and I think without us, who knows? You know there’s not a lot of opportunities for kids are growing up, you know, in isolated communities, somewhat isolated communities. And, he’s got a great story to tell, and we’re happy to have him back on board.
Anita Walker: The Massachusetts Cultural Council is absolutely pleased to invest in Artists For Humanity, the Cultural Facilities Fund, and your building, through operating support, the YouthReach Program, and the work you’re doing. And that is leveraged by private contributions which are absolutely necessary. And I will remind our listeners that Artists For Humanity is in a capital campaign, and–
Susan Rodgerson: That’s right, it’s breaking ground in spring, in April.
Anita Walker: And it’s a way for people to be part of something really important, and really transformative, here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Susan Rodgerson, thank you for being with us. Another Creative Mind Out Loud.
Susan Rodgerson: Thank you so much Anita, and thank you Mass Cultural Council for your devoted support of our work.
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