Living Arts Executive Director Alissa Novoselick discusses the importance of arts education and how it can transform the lives of youth in Detroit.
By Alissa Novoselick
As I pull the heavy door open to Living Arts’ after-school space in Southwest Detroit and walk into the room, I always notice light.
From the plentiful glass that the architect incorporated into the building design, the tired mother corralling her happy children bouncing around her or the familiar hug of the watchful security guard, I quickly leave behind the tedious details and meetings of my day.
I watch one of Detroit’s most promising dancers leap and turn circles with a group of 8-year-olds.
I watch one of Detroit’s legendary producers bob his head alongside the high school students in his beat-making class.
The track of the dance piece reverberates in the common areas, and the bright, sophisticated examples of 2D and 3D visual art projects dot the walls.
Plenty of other important things happen here. Families gather for potlucks, parents meet to voice their desires and similarly-minded community-based organizations work alongside ours to ensure that whoever makes their way into this building gets what they need.
This is what happens when art and children are put at the center of the work.
Living Arts was founded on this principle in 1999 with one dance class of 15 youth in a church basement on the corner of West Grand Boulevard and Toledo. In the last 19 years, the nonprofit has grown through the work of countless, dedicated community members, artists, families and arts administrators to reach 3,500 students — annually — across the city.
The current team of 40 professional teaching artists, many who have been with the organization for over a decade, work in long-term residencies embedded in Head Start classrooms, K-12 schools and at the Ford Resource and Engagement Center (also known as the Mexicantown Mercado) on Bagley Avenue. Living Arts does not emphasize one artform or another on purpose. Instead, we understand the transformative capacity of using multiple arts disciplines as a way of approaching life and as a strategy for the development of young people. The strength of the work of Living Arts resides in the abilities of individual artists as mentors and guides to meet the critical needs of the student, family or classroom.
While one in two kids in Detroit lack access to arts education, the work done at Living Arts and with our partners is never meant to replace what should be provided from a healthy, thriving system. Our work supports teachers who crave and understand their own professional development, students who desire to be further engaged or challenged, and families who understand more than anyone, the needs of their own children.
Youth are entitled to artistic experiences that not only engage, but jog their own cultural memory. Choreography, songs, sculptures, design and poems are all elements that directly translate and lend to this necessary, and often overlooked, education.
Statistically, the work has proven impact across domains, showing increases in areas such as academic achievement, social emotional growth and attendance. But in reality, this work impacts the 2-year-old who develops the ability to articulate her needs in her early childhood classroom. It impacts the middle school student who meets his artistic role model and gets excited to attend school for the first time. It also impacts the teacher who rethinks the same lesson she’s been teaching for years in order to further meet the diversity of learning styles in her classroom.
Simply put, the role of the teaching artist has some of the greatest potential to solve — and bring light to — some of Detroit’s most critical issues.
As Living Arts grows into maturity, embarking on our 20th year as an organization, the work of our teaching artist team has never been more pressing. Alongside our partners in the arts education field, we commit each day to reach more students, to deepen our relationships to the practice and systems, and further support parents and teachers in their difficult work.
When we put art and children in the center of the work, the most promising results will be achieved.
Alissa Novoselick is the executive director of Living Arts in Detroit, where she works to ensure youth in the city have access to high-quality arts education. Novoselick received her MBA from Antioch University and has a BA in English with teaching certification from the University of Michigan. Prior to accepting the position at Living Arts, Novoselick worked in West Virginia for seven years as the executive director of the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts and as director of development at Carnegie Hall. She also taught high school in Southfield and Camp Verde, Arizona.