For 20 years, Art with a Heart has been a principal cornerstone for community art engagement in the Baltimore area. Prior to March, they were slated to have their best programming year since they opened, with 500 visual art classes in 23 zip codes and 12,000 unique art experiences being held every month.
But when COVID-19 hit, the entire operation came to a grinding halt.
Randi Pupkin, founder of AWAH, admits that she cried when they were forced to suspend all of their programs and projects, but refused to admit any kind of defeat.
“I started this out of the trunk of my car, so I said to myself that this pandemic was not going to bring us down,” says Pupkin.
Luckily, Pupkin has an unbelievable team of individuals who were ready to keep the nonprofit going no matter the obstacle. “I’m so grateful to them. They have so much determination and grit, and the community is better for all of them,” she says.
Adapting and Revamping
After lock down began, Pupkin had three main objectives:
- Keep the staff employed and safe
- Keep the students and volunteers engaged
- Keep the teachers working and safe
Between March and June, the organization focused on cultivating best practices, getting evaluations from teachers and building on the digital art curriculum and job program. By the end of the school year, AWAH had switched to a virtual platform and rehired 27 teachers to hold their spring program virtually.
“Being in this situation allowed us to learn and gather our thoughts and abilities so we could move forward,” says Pupkin.
This summer AWAH was able to move to a hybrid system that proved to be a remarkable success. There were more than 100 students enrolled in the workforce development program, HeARTworks, making art pieces to be displayed and sold. Each student is paid a stipend to be in the program, and the proceeds from the HeARTworks store are shared with the collaborative partners.
Even during COVID-19, HeARTworks has continued to boast a 75-80% job placement rate, and this year’s program saw a remarkable 90% attendance rate.
“We didn’t have that kind of attendance rate when the program was in person, but because it’s virtual, students don’t have to worry about getting dressed and finding transportation,” Pupkin explains. “They can just log on and be present, so we’re going to keep that in mind moving forward.”
A few weeks ago, AWAH launched its Art of Leadership program, which brings together an intentionally diverse cohort of 10th and 11th grade students. Because the main focus of the program is to engage the kids in a cross-cultural dialogue they otherwise wouldn’t know, AWAH is holding outdoor meetings so the students can have in-person discussions.
AWAH has also revamped its volunteer program. Prior to COVID-19, the organization had 40 volunteers working 18 to 20 hours a week. Now that they have to limit the number of people in the office, they’ve introduced “Two for Tuesdays,” with two volunteers coming in the morning and two in the afternoon. Thanks to the help, 38 art projects that had been sitting idle since March are now getting worked on.
Plus, AWAH continues to distribute HeARTboxes—a box of art supplies for a monthly culturally-relevant project each month—to students in their programs. Since March, they’ve given out 3,300 boxes, allowing students to engage completely in their art class instead of worrying about a lack of supplies.
New Projects for a New Normal
While people were stuck at home during the pandemic, AWAH began selling HeARTkits online. These kits feature various art projects, such as decorating a tote bag or painting your own flamingo lawn ornament.
“We know that research shows that engaging in art for 45 minutes a day helps relieve stress and anxiety, so one of the first things we thought to do was create opportunities for the broader community to engage in art,” says Pupkin.
AWAH also offered pop art coloring pages available for curbside pickup and posted printable PDFs so people could make art at home. The response was tremendous, with people downloading the coloring sheets all over the country.
“We had never done the coloring and HeARTkits before this, so I think it really shows that if this group of creatives can’t innovate and pivot, no one can,” says Pupkin, who fondly refers to her team as The Little Engine That Could.
Moving virtual also allowed them to expand their digital curriculum and offer classes in graphic design, 3D modeling and printing, gaming and coding. Merchandise showcasing the work of the graphic design students will soon be available in their HeARTwares store.
The Heart of Baltimore
Of course, Art with a Heart isn’t going to let anything stop them from doing something big for their 20th anniversary, not even a global pandemic.
The idea is to finally give Baltimore its “thing,” that artistic tourist attraction that other cities have—the “Bean” in Chicago or the LOVE sign in Philadelphia. And what could be a more fitting project for AWAH to create than a giant 3D heart?
This 8’ x 6’ mosaic sculpture will stand on Pratt Street between Light and Charles Streets, a location that typically receives 2 million visitors a year.
At the moment, AWAH is engaging volunteers to create the ceramic hearts for the statue and will begin working on the glass and mosaic portion in October.
The plan is to have socially distanced outdoor service events so that everyone in the community—the homeless, youths, politicians—can help create it.
“We’re trying to create a cohesive community while we can’t be cohesive,” Pupkin explains. “Our community and city could really use some love right now, so this is our gift of love to Baltimore.”