The Artists Collective is one of the oldest institutions in the nation offering arts instruction to at-risk youth. How the program began is as inspiring as the results it achieves. Jackie McLean, a brilliant alto saxophonist who had battled drug addition early in his life, turned his personal struggle into a force for positive change. He recognized that drugs were racing through urban areas and stealing the promise of whole generations of African-American youth. And, in 1970, Jackie and his wife Dollie hit upon the then-novel concept of using the arts as a way to provide a safe haven, while building young people’s skills, cultural pride, and self-esteem.
The McLeans based their organization in Hartford, Connecticut, where Jackie was teaching at the University of Hartford. They enlisted teaching artists to lead classes in visual arts, drama, music, and dance. The determined couple then borrowed spaces in deteriorating neighborhoods and gathered students by knocking on doors.
From the beginning, several core ideas guided the organization’s approach: The Artists Collective insisted on professional arts instruction to engage and challenge participants and invited top jazz and other artists to provide inspiration through concerts and master classes. And, in an era when most arts education programs were Eurocentric, the Collective emphasized art forms with African-American roots.
“We all need to know that there is a legacy for African-Americans that goes beyond slavery,” Dollie explains. “We were providing a real education, while giving our young people a sense of themselves.”
Over the past 40 years, the Collective—now housed in a light-filled building in north Hartford—has become an anchor for the community. Each year, up to 1,200 youth take part in year-round classes, including hip-hop, tap, and ballet; instrumental music; drama; and visual arts. Students with special talent can audition for the music and dance ensembles that perform at public events.
The Artists Collective continues to explore ways to counter the negative influence of drugs and gangs. Its intensive Rite of Passage program, based on a traditional African initiation ceremony, combines performing arts instruction with training in life skills, ethics, and values to prepare participants to embrace roles as productive members of society.
The organization’s training program produces impressive results: “When young people stay with us, they stay in school, and most of our kids go on to college,” affirms Dollie.
“Many Artists Collective instructors saw things in me that I did not see in myself. I learned to control my temper and attitude, to be a leader and not a follower, and to go after the desires of my heart. I learned not to hide the ‘real’ me and to let my light shine, no matter what.”Shatovia N. Devonish, former Artists Collective student