The Little Nonprofit That Does

“The business model behind Women in the Arts is ruled by simple classic charity principles. However, despite its unassuming appearance on paper, Women in the Arts has a radical, compelling mission to carry out,” says Maria Guerrero, the organization’s founder, and by any objective standard her analysis is completely correct. Here is an organization that looks to break down the fine arts’ deep-rooted problems with professional gender inequality and financial discrimination in education, to bring justice to a habitually unjust culture that treats its women as little more than second-class hobbyists, and teaches only to the few who can afford the price; and it aimed to tackle these ambitious goals with little more than an idea. Logically, this organization was a thought experiment doomed to failure; here was a small local nonprofit founded with almost zero financial backing in Orlando, a city not historically known for its appreciation of the arts but working hard to overcome its reputation as a cultural black hole, and born from little more than the motivated voice of a woman who believed in creating equality in a world that thrived on inequality. The cards were stacked against them but when Maria raised the metaphorical bullhorn and called for action, the community responded with a resounding cheer and St. Andrew’s Catholic Church opened its doors and paved the way for the Community School of the Arts to make its humble beginnings.

Women in the Arts started meeting at St Andrew’s church in 2005, a time when art courses in public schools suffered extensive cuts to funding in exchange for a focus on core curriculum courses to be tested on AP exams, leaving scholastic arts education to die its slow death by a thousand budget cuts. Women in the Arts attained non-profit status on October 26, 2007 and won its first grant and seed money from C101, West Orange Chamber of Commerce, which allowed the organization to launch the first free art program in 2009. With so many public programs disappearing, any reasonably budget-constrained family looking to teach their children something about art for any significant period of study is now staring down the barrel of a project that could easily develop into a four-figure enterprise, with basic private tutoring anchored at a daunting starting average of $40 per hour and a week of workshops clocking in anywhere between $100–500 depending on the age of the student and the hourly (or weekly) duration of the classes. At that cost, how many families would decide the arts are simply too expensive? How many young talents would be lost simply because the price tag is too high? For an organization to offer an equivalent level of study consistently for an entire year at not just half or a quarter but none of that price went beyond bold and revolutionary, it was necessary; and the proof is in the sheer number of students, teachers, volunteers, artists, and general supporters that flocked to the program in its first year.

Women in the Arts has much to boast by way of numbers: through its partnership with St. Andrew’s Catholic Church it offers an average of 6 classes to 120 K-12 aged students annually, as well as another 4 classes for approximately 60 adult students at two Orlando public library branches. This is quite a change from the original class of ten who started meeting at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church on Saturday mornings almost a decade ago. Each class is kept very small with no more than fifteen students per teacher, and this personal setting is where the magic behind the project really begins. This is not your average after school finger painting and color-by-numbers or a chance for those who can afford it to have a few hours to play with weird art toys, these classes are run by experienced college-educated and internationally-renowned professionals from various schools of color and form who are quite well compensated to lay down some high-quality in-depth education for anyone who wants to seriously study art, and their passion for their subject is met with great enthusiasm from the students.

The rate at which Women in the Arts retains students is one of the program’s greatest accomplishments. It prides itself in creating an environment that really involves its students, and the students really want to be there; there are, for the most part, no problems with conduct and even the youngest rookies approach projects with serious concentration. Maria explains that this is one of the things she is most proud of, how these students approach the classes very seriously with a high level of focus and discipline and have since gone on to achieve great things with the skills they developed in the CSA. Despite whatever myriad setbacks they may have encountered in trying to find good art courses in public schools or private classes, CSA students have been able to develop their talents through the classes to reach a level where they are showcasing their work and receiving public recognition well beyond the confines of the program; CSA graduates have gone on to gain acceptance into art magnet schools and art-track collegiate programs using portfolios built with the CSA, others have been invited to paint murals in churches, and a few have even gone on to win competitions at the collegiate level.

The personal nature of the program has managed to achieve something within the Orlando community that most American schools, public and private, can’t even begin to touch: it’s created a culture that makes students want to learn about art, and it doesn’t end with graduation. Even alumni from the program’s nascent years still meet to discuss the arts, go to museums, or work on pieces together; recently one of these graduates, Elena Chow from the University of Florida, even set up a Tumblr page to display their various creative projects. Another graduate, Valerie Zephyr, has been trained as an intern instructor at CSA, and Jordan Guzman, an undergraduate student at the University of Central Florida, worked extensively with the teachers and Maria in developing a cohesive curriculum that emphasized the importance and overlap between the areas of science, technology, and art.

As Women in the Arts and the Community School of the Arts grew over the years, it expanded its goal of giving back to include an annual art competition for female artists. The competition was started as a small way of showing some appreciation for the genius of women in an art world that generally only caters to men, and has successfully branched into an international competition with a cash prize. Despite shifts in the professional world and, most recently, the military, where women can now become CEOs and earn Ranger tabs and (potentially) serve in the infantry, little has changed in the art world. Any mother or professional looking to make art generally does so in her spare time, and often between raising a family and working there’s not much time to be spared for any serious personal projects. Then whatever is produced generally never makes it to the walls of any major galleries or museums despite their otherwise outstanding resumes and curriculum vitae. Even in the thousands of years that art has existed as a profession, the steps it has taken to work women into the fold have been few and slow. At the end of the day, women still need to act like men to succeed.

Therefore, the goal of the Women in the Arts competition is to recognize, reward, and promote women’s accomplishments and talent in the arts while also providing a venue for them to showcase their work and connect with female artists who wish to share their work not just in the United States, but everywhere. The winners of the contest receive cash prizes, but the bottom line is always recognition; many paintings, sculptures, and photographs that would otherwise never see the light of day are now widely visible in libraries and online galleries. Soon these works will also be showcased on a new Women in the Arts online museum courtesy of the Google Cultural Institute.

Despite its great success in the last eight years, there is still much progress to be made for Women in the Arts. Since securing its status as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, the next step is to set up shop in an office of its own, preferably locally in the Orlando area, with enough space to host classes and provide a workspace for interns and teachers. The goal is to eventually provide scholarships for students who graduate the program and offer larger contest prizes to attract more entrants from across the globe. Because of these ambitious goals the need for donations is ever-present, despite the fact that there is never a true push to collect money. Students and parents donate whatever they feel like, which can be something or nothing; there is no suggested donation amount. Every dollar that Women in the Arts makes comes from someone who believes that the work Women in the Arts does is worth something, and every cent of this money is then turned around to purchase materials, pay teachers, and hire interns to create an even better experience. This is an organization that really stands by its mission of giving back to the community, and through the new classes of motivated students coming in every year and the continued support of the believers who grew through the program, anything is possible.

You can also check out the website, donate, or support the cause on Facebook

To read the letters of Pope John Paul II which formed the basis for the Women in the arts mission, please check them out here: the Pope’s open letter to women and his open letter to artists.

For more information on the program, you can contact @Maria Guerrero here:

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