Harlem School of the Arts: a New Cultural Hub?

Warming up for a performance, with Director of Dance Aubrey Lynch II at right (Photo by Michael Palma Mir courtesy of Harlem School of the Arts)

On a sunny Saturday in September, inside an imposing tawny brick edifice at 645 Saint Nicholas Ave. in Harlem, kids, parents, and teachers milled around, waiting for the demo performances to begin. A young girl of about 3, sporting a multicolored tutu, pranced around ballet teacher Dajuan Booker, eager to show him what she could do. Parents shuttled kids to tables to get information about art and theater classes. Upstairs, a shy young boy perched on a piano stool in a music studio listening to instructor Tsyala “Miss Delilah” Khudad-Zade. And in the hallway, getting a tour of the storied Harlem School of the Arts was its benefactor, 82-year-old musician Herb Alpert, who stepped in nearly eight years ago to rescue the financially-strapped school, and who still helps through his Herb Alpert Foundation.

HSA’s open house on Sept. 16 raised the curtain on what is likely to be another year of buzzing success. About 750 students, some taking multiple classes in one or more of the school’s four disciplines of theater, dance, music and art and design, pass through the doors after their regular school day ends and on Saturdays. For many of them, the school is a place where they grow up, often spending 5 or 6 years taking classes to refine their artistry and gain a shot at entering specialized high schools and colleges in the arts. Romances have bloomed here, and parents who once attended the school now send their kids to HSA. A prep program that offers scholarships to high school students has just been extended to middle school students, and 70 students are enrolled in those two intensive programs. HSA also partners with schools across the city to provide arts instruction to more than 900 students. HSA students like Wé McDonald and Brandon Brown have appeared on the NBC TV talent program “The Voice,” and the school’s “Wall of Fame” boasts many notable alums.

Wé McDonald singing in HSA’s gallery space. (Photo by Steven Schnur courtesy of HSA)

The instructors also have impressive pedigrees: Director of Dance Aubrey Lynch II danced with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Director of Music Yolanda Wyns appeared on Broadway in “The Color Purple,” Director of Art and Design Adrienne Tarver is a talented artist, and artistic director and head of the theatre department Alfred Preisser is the recipient of numerous theater awards.

Gearing up for a new chapter

The school’s can-do, feel-good atmosphere is infectious for any visitor. It’s a far cry from the troubles of a few years ago, and a fitting tribute to the legacy of concert soprano Dorothy Maynor, who made her name in Europe and returned to Harlem to start the school in the 1960s in the basement of St. James Presbyterian Church down the street from HSA’s current location.

Long-time supporters approve.

“The foundation has supported the Harlem School of the Arts since 1968 and we are thrilled by the upward trajectory of the organization that is having a positive and lasting impact on a multitude of our city’s students,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, in an emailed comment. “I know from my own life the ability of art and culture to expand the horizons of what is possible and to witness at HSA the power of arts enriching and transforming the lives of young people is truly inspiring.”

Now, HSA is gearing up for a new and bigger chapter. Under the steady leadership of president Eric G. Pryor – who’s been at the helm for two years – HSA is stepping out, albeit carefully, to position itself as a center for the arts in Harlem, not just a center for teaching the arts to children.

“We have an opportunity to be a cultural hub,” said Pryor in an interview. “We have an opportunity to be to Harlem what the 92nd Street Y is to that community…of course our programming will be relevant and reflective of the community of Harlem – both from a historical sense to what this community represents today.”

A case in point: visitors from the community and beyond came to the school at the end of September for “Interfest,” a novel three-day “free arts and ideas festival” produced by actor and HSA alum and HSA artist-in-residence Chris Myers. Interfest offered a lively series of performances, panels, play readings and discussions as “a response to the current challenges facing marginalized groups and their allies within the arts community and beyond.”

It kicked off with a rollicking party that featured live music with Jam No Peanut, Shyvonne, GypjaQ and other artists, and concluded with a reading of the play “Wig Out!” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, head of the playwriting program at the Yale Drama School whose unpublished play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” inspired the Oscar-winning movie “Moonlight.”

The festival capped a year in which HSA has promoted more and more programming for the public. Last year, artist talks, exhibits, performances and the like numbered 25, up from a handful the year before, with artists such as Mario Van Peebles, Danny Simmons, Michael Bivins and Twyla Tharp drawing new audiences to the building. In 2018, says Adrienne Tarver, the school’s new director of art and design, who’s also responsible for the exhibitions in the gallery, the overarching theme will be “translation,” as broadly interpreted by a wide range of artists, from a social justice collective to a synesthetic artist who sees color in words.

“A radical act”

Constructed in the 1970s in a forbidding, brutalist style, HSA’s outward appearance belies its mission: to be a welcoming artistic space for the children and residents of Harlem. Gradually, the appearance of the 37,000-square-foot facility, known as The Herb Alpert Center in honor of the trumpeter’s $5.5 million-plus contribution over the years, is being softened. Last year, the public gallery was refurbished with support from the Falconwood Foundation and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, giving artists a space that is at once bright and open as well as being intimate. Eventually, the entrance and lobby will be renovated as well.

GypjaQ performing at “Intermingle,” the opening night party for the three-day “Interfest” event at the Harlem School of the Arts. (Photo by Daniel Vasquez from Interfest NYC Facebook page)

“It’s a radical act just for HSA to have its doors open and serve its mission,” said Myers, who started out as a kid playing conga drums at HSA, tried piano, then painting and eventually settled on theater classes. A graduate of The Juilliard School who appeared last summer in the Public Theater’s “Julius Caesar” and won an Obie for his starring role in “An Octoroon,” Myers says the idea of HSA functioning as more of a cultural hub makes sense. “The idea that the school will bring more people into the fold…only enhances the ability of the school to meet its goals. We’re all here for the arts in Harlem.”

Even as it develops more programming for the community, though, the school is working to add classes and upgrade facilities for its students. A recording studio is in the works, with equipment donated by Harman. Some songwriting students have been publishing on SoundCloud, and the studio will provide students like them with the opportunity to produce professional-quality recordings and get a taste of what Pryor calls “the business side” of the arts.

Meanwhile the art and design program, formerly known as visual arts, is being revamped with new, sequential course offerings and more.

A new digital computer lab

Once more or less the runt of the litter, art and design is entering the digital age, with a new digital computer lab on the second floor to help students develop “fluencies” in technical areas such as coding, gaming and animation, and “walk away with tangible resume builders,” says Tarver. Another concept is to make sure that, despite the new, stronger influence on digital skills, students learn the analog version of what they’re studying – students studying digital photography, for instance, will get the chance to work in the darkroom Tarver hopes to have up and running by next semester. Students learning 3-D printing will also do hand sculpting for firing in a kiln.

Harlem School of the Arts president Eric G. Pryor. (Photo by Karen Pennar for Voices of NY)

Understanding stage design, projections and how best to use technology in performance is also an important part of promoting collaborations with other departments, says Tarver.

All the changes being introduced at HSA need to be digested, said Pryor in an interview held in his office, where one wall is lined with old LP recordings collected over the years by the school’s founder. Observed Pryor: “We need to be intentional and thoughtful.” Adult classes, for instances, have been added to the course list, but just a few – there’s only so much his talented faculty can handle, and the classes for kids are the priority.

And given HSA’s history – it closed for two weeks in 2010 because of financial difficulties – Pryor stresses that financial discipline is important, and that the school needs to be run as a business. HSA has a $4.5 million budget, with about $1 million of that coming from tuition (32 weeks of classes, running concurrently with the school year, cost $785 in most disciplines) and about $1 million from two major fundraising events, an offsite fall gala and a spring event at the school. Private foundation support and some government grants provide close to $2 million, and the school garners some income from education outreach and the rental of rehearsal and performance space during hours when the dance studios, theater and gallery space are not in use. Pryor hopes to boost rental income as a revenue stream for the school.

“Phenomenal”

Despite the moves to turn HSA into more of a cultural hub, the school remains as connected to its roots and its original mission as ever. Singers audition to join the vaunted Dorothy Maynor Choir, named after the school’s founder, students studying jazz get to study the Wynton Marsalis method in a program offered in collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center, while ballet students get the benefit of the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) method of instruction. Four theater productions are mounted each year, one of them a holiday show, with cross-disciplinary participation by numerous students.

Isio-Maya Nuwere performing “Phenomenal Woman” at the Harlem School of the Arts’ Sept. 16 open house. (Photo by Michael Palma Mir courtesy of HSA)

Alicia Newkirk, who studied theater at the school in the college prep program and attended LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, said “my training really came from HSA.” She graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and explored film and television, but realized theater was her first love. Today she works as assistant to artist director Alfred Preisser, who once taught her. His passion, and that of other faculty members, says Newkirk, is a key element in compelling students to do their best. In addition, she said, HSA teaches “discipline and being accountable – if you’re not up to speed, you may not appear on stage or be backstage.”

Students from HSA have gone on to the Berklee School of Music, Juilliard, Brown University, NYU’s Tisch School and other schools renowned for graduating students in the arts. But the faculty knows that there’s much more to the experience than sending people on to great schools.

“Is everybody going to be a wonderful performer?” asks Yolanda Wyns, director of the music program. “No, but something about the arts trains people to be leaders.” The experience of being at HSA, she said, is all about “being able to express yourself through the arts.”

For others, the attraction is more emotional, even elemental. Says Newkirk: “There’s something about HSA that’s home to a lot of people… There’s something about this place that just draws people.”

The talent fostered by HSA’s relentless dedication to arts education was plain to see at the September open house. Performing in the school’s gallery, jazz ensembles, a ballet dancing duo and modern dancers all got a rousing reception from the energized crowd. Then, as the recorded voice of the poet Maya Angelou reading “Phenomenal Woman” wafted through the space, 16-year-old Isio-Maya Nuwere electrified the audience with her modern dance solo. When the applause finally subsided, director of dance Aubrey Lynch II stepped on the stage.

“At HSA,” he said, “we make phenomenal kids.”

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