Fleisher Youth Art Programs
At the turn of the 20th century, wealthy industrialist Samuel S. Fleisher was so convinced of the importance of providing South Philadelphia’s heavily immigrant population with access to the arts that he would stand on the doorstep of the Graphic Sketch Club he founded, handing out charcoal and paper and urging people to come inside. Later housed in a former church and settlement school and renamed the Fleisher Art Memorial, the organization has stayed true to its founder’s vision of using the visual arts to enhance the lives of the area’s residents, including underserved children and teens.
Thanks to a healthy endowment and active fundraising, the Fleisher Art Memorial provides free art classes to some 2,000 young people each year. On Saturdays, the art center offers instruction in drawing, painting, mixed media, sculpture, photography, and printmaking to aspiring artists ages 5 to 18. Three afternoons a week, Fleisher opens its studios for an after-school, drop-in, youth-driven Teen Lounge program. The teens choose monthly projects, ranging from dyeing fabric to creating pieces for a Day-of-the-Dead installation, and select the artists who will serve as their guides. Fleisher also supports 20 off-site residencies serving 500 students in nearby schools and community centers, where the teaching artists identify projects linked to themes young people are studying in school and issues of local concern.
South Philadelphia, with its mix of African-American, Caucasian, Asian, and Latino residents, is as richly diverse as it was in Fleisher’s time, and using the arts to provide what Fleisher called a “sanctuary for the soul” for vulnerable residents remains equally important today, says Executive Director Matthew Braun. Many of the students enrolled in Fleisher’s Youth Art Programs are English-language learners, and more than 75 percent of students participating in residencies live in poverty.
What students find at Fleisher is a safe environment where they have an opportunity to explore individual and cultural identities through art, feel the joy and pride that comes with creation, and experience supportive relationships with adult teaching artists, Braun explains. “We’re here to help people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to get started or continue along a path of art making,” Braun says. He adds, “I think Samuel Fleisher would be proud.”