Exclusive Coverage: Art from the Heart

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Mutoh America is the latest company from the sign and digital graphics world to get behind Fresh Artists, a Philadelphia nonprofit devoted to disadvantaged children and art.

The nonprofit, founded by Barbara Allen and her son, Roger, has developed several innovative art-related programs since its launch in 2008, but at its core is its corporate art program. Through this program, artwork that was created by children from disadvantaged schools is blown up to poster or even wall size and hung in the halls of corporate America. Donations made by the corporations are used to buy art supplies that in turn are donated back into poor school districts.

Barbara Allen says a key to the nonprofit’s success has been the generosity of its corporate partners in this industry.

“Partnering with people in your profession, or the profession you represent, has meant all the world to us,” Allen told Sign & Digital Graphics magazine. “Roger had a little bit of knowledge working in a little tiny suburban print shop. It was enough to give him a taste – to know that this was a wonderful technology, it was something you could learn, it was something that could be translated and scaled up. … We never could do this without all of you.”

Fresh Artists is unique in several ways, not the least of which was how the idea first came about. Its story starts with an abandoned Kodak plant in downtown Philadelphia.

The School District of Philadelphia had hired a new superintendent who decided to consolidate the various administrative buildings scattered about the city into that one 850,000-square-foot building. He became acquainted with Allen, who had experience curating and managing art at several high-profile museums, and tasked her with filling the building with art.

But not just any art – he told Allen he wanted to use art created by local school children.

Roger “had some experience blowing up pictures of people’s grandchildren and cats” through his print shop job in high school, his mother said. Because of that experience he knew exactly how to fill such a cavernous space.

“One word – digital,” Barbara says. “He said, ‘We’re not going to frame little bits of children’s artwork – 8 x 10, 9 x 12 – in little cheap frames and hang them all over this huge building.’ We would digitize the artwork and blow them up big.”

They went to a now-defunct, well-known East Coast printer and asked if they would do the printing for free if the Allens assembled the artwork, and to her delight the owner said yes, Barbara Allen says.

“He donated all the printing, all the board,” she says. “It was basically just a big photographic reproduction of the children’s artwork, done on an HP 6100 and mounted on Gator Board and trimmed to bleed, and we made little paper labels that were mounted on cardboard. It was quite rudimentary but it was stunning, it was absolutely stunning.

“And everybody that walked into the building wanted to buy one, and we kept saying, ‘They’re not for sale, they’re not for sale. We’re not here to sell children’s artwork – we’re decorating the building.’ But people were absolutely nutso about the stuff.”

Decorating the building turned out to be an 18-month project. During that time the school district was in the news – as so many districts around the country often are – for budget cuts. There were layoffs, and anything deemed excess was scaled back or cut out altogether. Much to Allen’s dismay, that often meant art supplies for classrooms.

Between the demand for the children’s artwork and the dire need for art supplies in the classroom, the idea for Fresh Artists was born.

‘Lateral Philanthropy’

While fleshing out the details, Allen did her due diligence and found out that their idea – by now Roger, who had studied industrial design at New York’s Pratt Institute, had joined in her effort – was unique across the country.

“We went to the superintendent (and said) we have an idea that could help you,” Barbara Allen says. “We could start a nonprofit and raise money by having the children license the artwork to us as a nonprofit, and then inviting people to make a donation to the nonprofit and giving them a gift of a big photograph of a children’s piece of artwork as a thank-you gift.”

The model they based their fundraising on was identical to the way public television operates, she says. And given that the artwork has no intrinsic value – no market existed for it prior to Fresh Artists – a corporation would stand to get significant tax breaks from its donation, although Allen says she’s heard from many companies that said they never even take the deduction.

The kids license their artwork to Fresh Artists but they ultimately keep the work themselves. Fresh Artists merely scans it into a digital image and the child retains all the rights to do whatever he or she wants with their art.

The other key piece of Fresh Artists’ philosophy is what Allen refers to as “lateral philanthropy.”

The artwork comes from children in poor school districts, where at least 70 percent of the kids are on free or reduced lunch programs. At the same time, it’s impoverished districts where Fresh Artists donates its art supplies to the classrooms, and helps teachers set up art programs Fresh Artists has created.

“We’re empowering children in need to help other children in need,” Allen says, referring to what she terms the “muscle of philanthropy.” The kids donate their art, she says, knowing exactly what the art is being used for – helping kids like themselves who are growing up in difficult circumstances.

“We help them exercise this muscle,” Allen says. “It creates grit, it creates resilience, it creates things that a child living in need really could use to get on in the world. It makes children much more adaptable, they have more self confidence.”

Allen credits a segment highlighting Fresh Artists done by the TODAY Show and her becoming acquainted with Tim Markley, current chairman of SGIA’s board of directors, as two key moments in her organization’s growth.

In its first seven years Fresh Artists has licensed more than 1,000 images from almost as many children, and it has funneled more than $500,000 worth of art supplies and programs into poor districts. The program has also expanded beyond Philly to New York City, Washington, D.C., Denver and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Barbara Allen tells the story of being at a poor Indian school in Santa Fe when she asked the class, “Who knows what amplify means?”

“(A little girl) raised her hand and she stood up and she said, ‘You make our artwork loud so people can hear our voices.’

“These are children who are never heard,” Allen says. “Children living in poverty are never heard.”

Corporate Partners Always Welcome

Last fall, Mutoh America donated a printer to Fresh Artists to allow it to print the images on substrates other than paper. And all Allen had to do is ask the company for one, she says.

“HP has donated two printers and lots of media,” Barbara Allen says. “We realized that we had a lot of demand for printing directly to substrates. There were a lot of health care applications where the paper doesn’t work, because you can’t clean it and you can’t disinfect it.

“Roger got it in his head that we had to have a large-format digital printer that would print direct to substrate because it would allow us to do things much faster and to satisfy certain installations that we couldn’t do with the paper.”

Roger Allen did his research and found out that a Mutoh ValueJet would be the ideal printer for their shop, both in terms of size and functionality. So the Allens simply walked up to Brian Phipps, general manager of Mutoh America, at a trade show last fall.

“I had the audacity to ask for a donation,” Barbara Allen says.

Three to four weeks after they met, Phipps called one Friday afternoon and told the Allens their printer was on the way.

“When I heard about the Fresh Artists program from Barbara I immediately wanted to get involved,” Phipps says. “Helping young people learn more about the arts and to help them understand wide-format printing was particularly exciting to me. Mutoh America always tries to give back when we can and this type of program was a natural fit for us to support.”

That philosophy fits right in with the Allens’ thinking. They bring inner city teens into their Fresh Artists Print Studio to learn the art of printing, possibly preparing them for a career down the road.

Along with Mutoh and HP, other Fresh Artists corporate benefactors include Epson, Visual Magnetics, Neschen Americas, 3A Composites and Foster Keencut. Allen says she would always welcome more help, however.

“My idea would be for everybody to give us a little,” Allen says. “My ideal right now is, substrate is so expensive -- $800, $900 a case. If I could get three or four manufacturers to say, ‘We’ll give you five cases a year … ‘”

She says Fresh Artists will always accept cash donations – the organization being to the point now where it needs to hire more staff to grow. And finally – especially as the organization grows nationally – it could use some sign shops willing to scan in the kids’ artwork and send Fresh Artists the high-resolution images.

Currently, the organization has a system of accepting and returning art using a FedEx system, but that’s not ideal for the long run, Allen says. The new website, which just recently went live, should make it easier for school districts – and individual teachers and kids – to connect with her organization and upload high-res images.

Allen, who was 60 when Fresh Artists launched, says she would welcome help from anyone who sees the value in what the group does. Children, both on the giving end and the receiving end, would welcome the help too.

“We like to say we took the threads of our different lives – Roger’s, mine, a lot of people who joined us on this journey … and we wove a new tapestry that had never been woven before, and we take that tapestry and we wrap it around vulnerable children,” Allen says.

For more information on this 501(c)3 visit www.freshartists.org.

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