Harlem School of the Arts celebrates 50 years of progress and transformation

by Rahim Kanani | rahimkanani | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Friday, 4 December 2015 15:46 GMT

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 05: (L-R) David Ushery, Charles Hamilton, Sophia Dawson, Devin Graves, Olivia Ruiz, Alicia Keys, Elain Graham and Terria Joseph appear onstage during the Harlem School of the Arts 50th anniversary kickoff at The Plaza on October 5, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Harlem School of the Arts

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Recently, the Harlem School of the Arts (HSA) hosted its 50th Year Anniversary Gala Kickoff in the Grand Ballroom at The Plaza Hotel in New York City. The star-studded evening recognized artists, community leaders and activists that represent outstanding achievement in arts advocacy, philanthropy and community leadership while raising funds essential to helping HSA in its mission of empowering young people from under-served communities in Harlem and throughout the city to find and develop the artist and citizen within themselves.

In an interview with Eric G. Pryor, HSA President, we discussed his passion for the arts, key milestones of progress and achievement over the last 50 years, the unique relationship between HSA and the community, challenges and opportunities moving forward, and much more.

Tell me a little bit about your passion for the arts, and how that passion has evolved over the years. 

I always excelled in the arts and sports classes as a youth, they gave me the confidence to approach other classes. However, my passion for the arts was strengthened thanks to my mother and my sister. After my father passed away, my mother went back to school for interior design, my sister was a photographer. Watching the two of them engage in their creative process was intriguing to me.

Later on, my best friend’s father, an artist by the name of Alvin D. Loving, become my mentor. That experience exposed me to fine arts painting. Going to New York with my friend to visit his father’s studio, was the first time I witnessed a fine artist creating work and I loved it. That is how I got into the arts; I walked away from a basketball scholarship to pursue the arts. 

The Harlem School of the Arts has such an incredible legacy spanning 50 years. What are some of the milestone achievements of the school that stand out to you, and that you would like to build on, as the new president of HSA?

A milestone achievement that stood out is learning that Dorothy Maynor and Betty Allen while pursuing their magnificent operatic careers, had the ability to get this 37,000 square foot facility constructed in Harlem in 1965 – specifically for all four platforms of the arts. That was a major accomplishment.

Secondly, how HSA overcame a financial hurdle thanks to the generosity of a new Board of Directors and management team, and how our future was transformed in 2011 by an extraordinary leadership gift of $6,000,000 from acclaimed trumpeter and philanthropist, Herb Alpert. In 2012, HSA renamed its landmark home The Herb Alpert Center in honor of this gift. 

Today, what I find to be a proud moment is the recent production of our HSA Advanced Jazz Combo students creating and launching their own CD. These students wrote and performed all the music on their Kickstarter CD, entitled Evolution.

What I would like to build on, as the new President is to maximize the utilization of the HSA facility. To take our G Space Gallery and Theatre and make Harlem School of the Arts a destination for public programs for all in our community.  To take our incredible music, dance, and visual arts studios and really make certain we are maximizing our programs for our children. To begin to create and implement programing for adults, and always ensure that our studios are being used to their maximum capacity.

HSA occupies not only an important place in arts education, but also within the culture, spirit and neighborhood of the city. How would you describe this relationship between HSA and the community at large?

HSA has been constant as it relates to the children of Harlem having a place where they can come to for training in all four arts disciplines. Over the history of HSA, there have been moments where many of the public schools in Harlem or in the Bronx did not offer arts training.  Scott Stringer’s report highlights how children in economically distressed areas, do not have access to arts education. HSA has been that platform for those children who want to learn violin, music, dance, or vocals; and continues to be a place where they can receive the highest caliber training by notable teaching artists. I think that has been the strongest relationship HSA has with the communities at large.

Looking ahead 5 or 10 years, what are some of your top priorities for carrying HSA forward, and what kinds of challenges might you have to tackle along the way?

The first challenge to tackle is to structure our business model so that it is sustainable on a fiscal level, in order to do so we have to make certain that we are maximizing our potential in terms of our earned revenue in our fee based classes. We must also ensure that institutional fundraising streams necessary to support the operation continue to remain strong and in place. This will allow us to be able to offer children both traditional and cutting edge arts training experience and the ability to provide financial aid and scholarship to students who otherwise would not be able to afford lessons.

The next challenge, looking at this incredible facility built in 1965, is trying to balance bringing our building to the 21st century without halting our arts programs. Upgrading the building so that we can take advantage of what today’s technologies allows for, which includes installing an elevator, upgrading the HVAC, and the challenges in making additional upgrades. 

An ongoing priority will be branding Harlem School of the Arts as the primary cultural destination for lifelong learning in the arts for people of all ages.

How would you characterize the role of arts education in society today, and how important is it for children to immerse themselves in music, dance, theatre and visual arts?

In today’s society, no one can really predict what jobs will exist 10 to 16 years from now. Harlem School of the Arts is training children to be thinkers. One of the things HSA believes, that, I believe in wholeheartedly, is that the arts give children, the “Four Cs”. The “Four Cs” helps children to become critical thinkers, creative problem solvers, master communicators and collaborators.  These skills sets are critical in the 21st century; they are transferrable skill sets, not skills that are just used within the context of the arts. These vital skills are shaped and honed in on based on ones participation in the arts here at HSA. We want to ensure that our children, no matter the profession that a student pursues learns the “Four Cs.”

For nearly a half century, the Harlem School of the Arts (HSA) has transformed the lives of tens of thousands of young people through world-class training in the arts.  HSA’s mission empowers young people from under-served communities in Harlem and throughout the city to find and develop the artist and citizen within themselves.  HSA’s environment teaches discipline, stimulates creativity, builds self-confidence and adds a dimension of beauty to the lives of each student.

 HSA stands among New York City’s premier arts institutions as a provider of quality arts education in music, dance, theatre and visual arts.  HSA boasts an impressive alumni base of Tony-award winning actors, celebrated operatic voices and jazz musicians, visual artists, dancers, and inspired citizens who cite HSA as the platform from which they launched careers in law, business and other professional fields.  HSA believes that all children deserve access to a quality arts education, empowering them to become the creative thinkers and innovative leaders of tomorrow.  For more information about Harlem School for the Arts, visit www.HSAnyc.org.