Picasso Project supports innovative arts programs in Philly schools

“We’ve provided almost like a Band-Aid, which is the grant funding, but working towards a bigger vision of full, equitable arts funding for all students in the District,” said the program's director.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

When Fairhill Elementary School closed in 2013 due to budget cuts, Tim Gibbon lost his job as a K-8 out-of-school-time coordinator, the staff member responsible for after-school and summer programming. What he didn’t lose was his passion for arts education.

“For me personally, growing up, art and the music classroom was like a sanctuary in my school,” Gibbon said. “They were the things that got me excited about school. Because I loved those spaces, I could get excited about the rest of learning.”

Tim Gibbon

After Fairhill’s closure, Gibbon earned his master’s degree in art education at Temple University. During his program, he worked on a project focused on inadequate and inequitable school funding, specifically about the Fairhill Elementary closure.

“We actually were able to take out the old furniture and ceiling tiles and things from Fairhill School and install [them] in an art installation classroom on the campus of Temple,” Gibbon said.

After working on this project, Gibbon said, his dedication to advocacy continued through his work for Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY).

PCCY was founded in 1980 as a youth advocacy organization focused on education, health care, and other issues that affect young people in and around Philadelphia. Its Picasso Project began 17 years ago in response to substantial cuts to funding for the arts, especially within the School District of Philadelphia.

Gibbons now directs the Picasso Project, which has a twofold mission: providing grant funding to support arts education in Philadelphia schools and advocating at the local, state, and federal levels for increased funding for arts education.

“We’ve provided almost like a Band-Aid, which is the grant funding, but working towards a bigger vision of full, equitable arts funding for all students in the District,” he said.

Schools applying for Picasso Project funds can choose between two grant models: a teacher-based grant or a school-based grant. Under the teacher-based grant, individual teachers apply for up to $5,000 for a half-year grant. The 2019-20 application period recently closed.

The school-based model, which was implemented this year, allows principals to apply for schoolwide projects that are funded for up to three years. Grants can be $10,000 per year, for a total of $30,000.

Since its establishment, Picasso Project has given $809,466 in grants to support a total of 186 projects at 105 schools.

Gibbon said he hopes the Picasso Project can fund 14 schools this year, depending on how much money they are able to raise.

Poems and pocket squares

The U School, which focuses on experiential and collaborative learning, is one grant recipient. It has partnered with The Galleries at Moore for a project called “Poem in Your Pocket: Advocating for Art to Transform Our Communities.” Expanding on the national Poem in Your Pocket program, students mainly worked in their humanities classes to create original, pocket-sized poetry that they could share with each other.

Matt Kalasky, former education and programs manager at The Galleries at Moore, said that after the students completed their project, a Moore College of Art & Design alumna created video portraits of a few students performing their poetry. These portraits were featured in an exhibition at The Galleries at Moore.

Samuel Reed III, a humanities teacher and founding staff member at the U School, began offering Poem in Your Pocket programming shortly after the school opened five years ago.

“Originally, Poem in Your Pocket was informal,” Reed said. “I was taking my classes out on Temple’s campus and sharing poetry with audiences, mostly passersby and students.”

This year, the project coincided with National Poetry Month in April, specifically focusing on learning to write poetry and looking at poetry around the world.

“It evolved each year,” Reed said. “We thought that last year would be a great time for it and to really up our game with the Poem in Your Pocket and the Picasso grant and combine something that kind of is already institutional at the school.”

The Fabric Workshop and Museum and the recording artist/poet Vision joined the partnership in 2019.

Vision opened this year’s project with a presentation to the school and in-depth writing workshops in each of the humanities classrooms. Kalasky said these class sessions might be an hour or two, but 30 to 40 kids were able to participate.

Then a group of 10 to 12 students who were particularly passionate about the project worked closely with Vision to practice performing their poetry. The culmination of the project was a public reading at the Eighth and Diamond Streets Community Center, attended by students and community members.

The focus of the project was engaging art as a tool of advocacy, Gibbon said.

“Getting the students and the teachers involved is so important because they are the best advocates,” he said. “They know what the needs are. They can really make the case in a way that moves the needle.”

Besides their original writing, the students created zines and learned silkscreening at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. Ninth graders made bandanas and pocket squares with students’ poetry printed on them. Reed said that throughout the day, students paraded around campus wearing their poems as literal fashion statements.

An example of a pocket-square poem that students at the U School made for their final project. (Photo courtesy of Tim Gibbon)

This fashion-inspired component was added as a way to further engage students after teachers saw that many students showed interest in fashion and design as well as poetry. “A big part of this project, probably most of this project, was to give students a platform to see their work recognized and validated,” said Kalasky.

Outside the classroom

For example, one student was invited to share her poetry at the Philadelphia school board meeting.

“It was just a riveting poem,” Reed said. “We actually had to get it screened before being read, because, you know, poetry deals with sensitive and meaningful topics, and I wasn’t sure how it would come off with that audience. But it did. It was powerful.”

Without the help of outside partnerships along with the Picasso Project, these projects won’t happen, said Kalasky.

“You can make a cool art project in your classroom, but the stakes aren’t very high if you’re just showing it to your friends or showing it to your teachers,” he said. “But if it’s going in an art college downtown, or if you’re doing it at an event, or going to a TV station, that motivates students to really take pride in their work and puts the excitement and energy into making and thinking about that work.”

For Gibbon, Poem in Your Pocket is the kind of innovative project, unique to the neighborhood and school, that the Picasso Project was meant to support.

“We don’t want just a cookie-cutter type of project that could happen at any North Philly, South Philly, West Philly school,” Gibbon said. “We want it to be specific as to how they can serve their students and do something interesting and exciting for their school.”

Reed said the Poem in Your Pocket work was continued by students in Highlight, the U School’s digital media space, where they were able to document the process of students performing their work through video.

“That kind of rich collaboration doesn’t really happen in a lot of schools,” he said.

Kalasky said projects like Poem in Your Pocket not only benefit the students, but also the participating groups, especially for an arts organization like Moore.

“These students are making amazing work, expressing their experiences in a way that makes sense to them,” Kalasky said. “Without these collaborations, we have no way to put those in the public view or insert those into a public conversation with art and art-making.”

Gibbon said the Picasso Project has seen a slow and steady increase in arts funding each year due to continued advocacy efforts and the dedication of community partners. However, the work can’t stop there.

“It’s not a guaranteed thing,” Gibbon said. “We can’t just assume the arts budget will continue to rise. Actually, this year we’ve seen kind of a plateau for the first time.”

Still, for Gibbon, the quality and wealth of creative talent among teachers and students in Philadelphia schools make continued support from private and philanthropic partners necessary.

“There’s so many potentially great artists and musicians in our schools that aren’t getting the opportunity to share and express their talent,” Gibbon said. “And even for students who aren’t really the artsy students, the presence of the arts in school is so critical.”

Amber Denham is working on a master’s degree in journalism at Temple University’s Lew Klein College of Media & Communication. For the next several months, she will be reporting on arts education in Philadelphia for Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a program of the department of journalism at the Klein College of Media & Communication.