Five questions with: Marlene Paul, executive director, ART 180

Bold, brave, creative, strong. When students become artists at ART 180, that’s what they say they feel, summoning new versions of themselves. Young people from throughout Greater Richmond youth can explore their artistic sides at the local nonprofit, which also gives them the chance to showcase their talents through exhibitions, performances, public art, publications and more. Executive Director, Marlene Paul, is an advocate for the arts and aims to uplift youth, especially those living in challenging circumstances.

We caught up with Paul to learn more about her and ART 180.

What is ART 180’s core mission?

ART 180 gives young people the chance to express themselves through art, and to share their stories with others. Our vision is that, through our programs, young people will turn their lives and communities around 180 degrees (hence our name). 

Those words have stayed the same since we started 22 years ago, but we’re taking another look at them—along with everything else—as part of an internal rebuilding process and the formation of a racial equity task force. The objective won’t change; we still want to guide young people in finding and sharing their voice and support them in doing so through programs in creative expression. But we’re also exploring how that intersects with advocacy, entrepreneurship, skill building and resource sharing.

Can you characterize the extent of the problem locally?

The voices of young people are largely ignored, especially young people in communities that have been historically marginalized. All young people need support as part of their development, and the more adults who are a part of that, the better. We are interested in holistic youth development and connecting young people to programs and other resources they might otherwise not have access to. Many young people in our city don’t have many opportunities during or after school to engage in meaningful art experiences, to learn from working artists and to build social and emotional skills along the way. 

What don’t most people realize or understand?

ART 180 isn’t about art for art’s sake. Creativity is an important part of being human, and those who learn to access and strengthen their innate creativity can not only express themselves artistically but can apply that critical thinking and problem solving to any area of their lives. They can discover more about who they are, what they’re good at, what they care about and imagine and pursue any future they desire. 

What kind of work do volunteers do to help ART 180?

Our programs are led by teaching artists who are paid. Our original model relied on volunteers, and we were encouraged early on to commit to paying artists for their time as soon as we had the means to. We rely on volunteers for other activities, much of which is on hold for now (special events, exhibitions, etc.). We’ve been lucky to have volunteer creatives help with services like graphic and web design, photography, video production, etc. And of course, we’re governed by the most important volunteers of all, our board members (and we have a fantastic board!).

If $100,000 fell from the sky tomorrow, how would you spend it?

I would use it to support the young people in our programs who are on the brink of adulthood, and our alumni who are establishing their adult lives. I’m not sure how, but it may be in the form of something like a “Dream Manager” who helps them identify goals and connects them to the resources to achieve them.

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