Americans for the Arts: YouthArtsArts Programs for Youth at Risk: The Handbook
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About YouthARTS

The YouthARTS Demonstration Sites

The three programs in the YouthARTS Development Project—Art-at-Work (Fulton County, Georgia), Urban smARTS (San Antonio), and Youth Arts Public Art (Portland, Oregon)—are discussed throughout this site.

These programs provide three distinct models of arts programs for at-risk youth and incorporate best practices from arts programs around the country. They serve as illustrations of how you can plan, implement, and evaluate your own successful arts program.

Art-at-Work

Fulton County is the region’s largest county, both in area and in population. In 1990, the total population of Fulton County was 821,000: 470,000 white (non-Hispanic), 326,000 African American, and 16,000 Hispanic American. Central Fulton, which includes most of the city of Atlanta and all of the Atlanta Central Business District, is highly urban and includes the region’s most densely developed areas.

The Art-at-Work program is located in the urban West End neighborhood of Atlanta. Founded in 1835, West End is Atlanta’s oldest definable neighborhood, boasting four parks and a rich cultural history. It is a community that is witnessing revitalization through an influx of new residents and businesses.

In 1996, the West End Public Library was renovated, and in January 1997, the West End Performing Arts Center officially opened as a state-of-the-art performance and presentation facility. This center is home to the Art-at-Work program.

In 1995, the Fulton County Arts Council created Art-at-Work as a summer job training and arts education program for teen-agers interested in art. The following year, while maintaining this program, the arts council, in partnership with the Fulton County Juvenile Court, designed a second version of Art-at-Work for youth status offenders who are under court supervision and are at risk of continued involvement with the court.

The goals of this year-round, afterschool intervention program are fourfold: to reduce truancy by providing sequential arts instruction in various arts disciplines; to teach the business and entrepreneurial aspects of the arts; to provide youth with the necessary job skills to become productive members of the work force; and to provide youth with a sense of accomplishment, thus increasing their self-esteem.

The program targets truancy, a status offense, because it is one of the earliest signs of adolescent problem behavior and is often a stepping stone to more serious juvenile delinquency.

Like the other programs in the YouthARTS Development Project, Art-at-Work employs professional artists as instructors. It is the job of these instructors to expose program participants, referred to within the program as "apprentice artists," to a variety of art forms. During the first year, teenagers received arts instruction in two- and three-dimensional design. Subsequently, the apprentice artists lavishly embellished recycled chairs; created mosaics; designed and installed murals; learned techniques of drawing, painting, and photography; received computer instruction; and studied drama.

The program participants are paid by the hour for their work; in turn, much of the artwork they create is sold, with proceeds from the sales going back into the program. In addition, Art-at-Work participants engage in special arts activities during non-instructional time—visits to local museums, galleries, and theaters.

A social worker serves as a liaison between the probation officers and the youths’ families and can provide Art-at-Work with referrals for help if a problem is identified. The families of the youths are required by the court to attend orientation sessions and are encouraged to attend exhibits of the youths’ work. In addition, parents are welcome to visit the arts sessions.

Urban smARTS

The Urban smARTS program operates largely in the San Antonio Independent School District, Bexar County’s oldest public school system. In 1990, Bexar County had a total student population of 313,436. The overall student population was approximately 60 percent Hispanic American, 8 percent African American, 31 percent white (non-Hispanic), and 1 percent other. The Urban smARTS program participants are 84 percent Hispanic American, 11 percent African American, 5 percent white, and less than 1 percent each, Asian and Native American.

In 1993, the City of San Antonio Department of Arts and Cultural Affairs, the Department of Community Initiatives, and San Antonio Independent School District developed Urban smARTS, an arts-centered prevention program designed to divert middle-school students in high-risk urban areas away from gangs, drugs, and contact with the juvenile justice system. Professional artists, hired as instructors, collaborate to create engaging interdisciplinary activities for Urban smARTS students. Nutrition, field trips, transportation home, and a safe haven are essential parts of the program.

Urban smARTS operates from October through June at seven middle schools and one elementary school—all of which are located in geographic areas identified by the San Antonio police department as areas with a high number of juvenile arrests. Teachers and counselors use risk criteria to select individual students to participate in the program. They must be sixth-grade students, living at or below poverty level in areas with a high incidence of juvenile crime. They must be experiencing academic failure, showing irregular school attendance, and demonstrating persistent anti-social behavior. All are from communities with problems that place families at risk.

The goals of this prevention program are many: to divert at-risk youth from the juvenile justice system; to improve their social behavior and social skills; to improve their academic performance and commitment to school; to develop their art skills; to provide them with opportunities to perform and exhibit their art; and to provide an afterschool safe haven.

A team of individuals—three professional artists, four caseworkers, and one teacher/counselor—at each school work with the youth for the duration of the program. Artists integrate information about risk and protective factors into their arts curriculum; for example, to address the risk factor of low neighborhood attachment, artists might develop the themes of celebrating ancestors or communities of today. (For a detailed explanation of risk factors, consult the Program Planning and Evaluation section.) Media include music, theater, dance, and the visual and literary arts. All projects involve a public event that highlights the work produced by the youth. The youths’ families are actively encouraged to attend exhibitions and presentations.

Youth Arts Public Art

Portland, located in Multnomah County, is the largest city in Oregon. Its population in 1990 was 467,401; Multnomah County’s population that same year was 583,887. The county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Community Justice provides services by geographic areas within Multnomah County.

The Youth Arts Public Art program is currently being conducted within three of these geographic areas: North Portland, which has a population of 45,423 residents; Central Northeast and North Portland combined, with a population of 102,656; and Southeast Portland with a population of 162,427. The probation caseload of Multnomah County is 56 percent white (non-Hispanic), 30 percent African American, 6 percent Asian American, 6 percent Hispanic American, and 1 percent Native American.

In 1995, a new juvenile justice complex was completed in Portland; as part of the Percent for Art program, a percentage of construction costs was allocated for public art. This money made it possible for the Regional Arts & Culture Council to develop an arts program—Youth Arts Public Art—as an intervention strategy for youth on probation. The program is a multilevel collaboration among the Regional Arts & Culture Council, Multnomah County Department of Adult and Juvenile Community Justice, Multnomah County, individual artists, and arts organizations.

Artists are teamed with probation officers to work with groups of youth in the creation of public art to enhance the juvenile justice complex and key sites throughout Multnomah County. Youth are selected by their probation officers to participate in the afterschool program; each 12-week session involves a different group of youth from one of three geographic areas and focuses on a different art form. The youth are involved in all aspects of producing an art exhibition or performance. This includes planning the type of artwork to be created, creating the artwork, mounting the exhibition, designing the invitations, creating the press kit, making the press contacts, and hosting the opening reception. Field trips that build on the curriculum are incorporated into each program.

The youths’ families are invited to an orientation session during which they join in the art activity. Family members and friends are also invited to the opening reception.

During 1997, the following programs were conducted at three different sites:

  • A workshop led by a photographer and poet helped youth discover new ways of expressing themselves through photography and poetry and enabled them to produce Picture This: Poems and Photographs by Youth, an exhibition of 28 photographs and a chapbook by the same name.


  • A video project resulted in Measure 11: The Law & Its Consequences, a 10-minute documentary film that explores the pros and cons of a law that strengthens sentencing for crimes committed by youth—from robbery to manslaughter. It premiered before an audience of more than 200 people at the Portland Art Museum Northwest Film Center. The video continues to be shown at local and regional juvenile justice meetings, schools, and special programs, and has been translated into Spanish.


  • A theater project, Mowgli in the Hood, was performed twice in a small neighborhood theater and was attended by family and friends, as well as local politicians and administrators.

The overall goals at each site are the same: to teach arts skills; teach life skills such as beginning and completing a project; create opportunities for strengthened peer, mentor, and family relationships; raise self-esteem; and create a quality art project for public display. The final art product becomes a part of a permanent collection of public artwork.

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