Adarsh Alphons is an artist turned arts administrator turned mentor and philanthropist. He introduces young people to art and nurtures their creativity and problem solving skills through his New York City-based program, “Project Art" www.projectart.org. He’s really a cool guy who wants to help everyone through art. Here’s our chat.
MICHAEL: Hey Adarsh. First of all, what do you consider yourself these days ... an artist or arts administrator? Or both? How does it work?
ADARSH: This sounds so interesting! It's a good question. I consider my program as my artistic work. Sure, it involves using more than just the tools that you find in an artist's studio, but in another manner of speaking, I am only trying to do what anyone, visual artist or otherwise has tried to do; try to actualize a vision, using whatever medium I can find to make it happen. That said, I’m a dreamer-schemer! And the experience and education I've had in arts administration comes really handy in figuring out how to make this program happen. I think every artist should have an “art administration 101” course because it helps in understanding what role art plays in the world from economic, political and social perspectives. This is so important because it’s all connected and we’re all connected.
MICHAEL: Wow. Given what you've said, EVERYONE should take art administration 101. You must be quite frustrated these days because art is really taking deep cuts. How do you cope?
ADARSH: It's a pity that so few political leaders see art's place in the overall well-being of society and hence, are willing to take art off the budget without putting up a serious fight. While that's true, art has always and will continue to get the support of individuals, who chose to invest in art in many ways, from buying a piece of work or by donating to a museum that houses the work. I said every artist should take art administration 101 because it would encourage artists to look outside their studios. On the other hand, people who are not artists, I think, should just check out more art; go to museums, exhibitions, whatever. From what I've observed, once someone starts to understand a piece of work, say an abstract piece, they don't find it as intimidating and want to see more abstract work. The more people who follow art, the better. It makes art more relevant.
MICHAEL: How did you come to love art? Do you come from an artistic family?
ADARSH: I am still figuring that one out! I think it's very personal. I do know that I started painting and drawing around the age of 7, and that age was difficult for me as my family and I had just moved from one part of India to another and I didn't know the local language there, nor did I know English, so I had a hard time communicating. I discovered that art was a medium through which I could connect with folks from different backgrounds and it really worked! Before long I was drawing my classmate's portraits in my notebooks which landed me in a different type of trouble. My parents are not involved in any artistic pursuits as far as I know, although ever since I started painting, both my parents have come to claim their artistic ancestry! But my parents have been very supportive of my artistic tendencies, which is very unusual for Indian parents. I owe them so much.
MICHAEL: Most of the art folks I know had some sort of relationship with art early on so there's a natural kinship and understanding, but many people don't. There's even a tendency to dismiss art as silly or effeminate. What do you think about this?
ADARSH: One of my first intense experiences with art, which really ended up leaving a big impression on me, is my first visit to an established artist's studio. He was a neighbor in the part of town I lived in, in New Delhi. His name is Jatin Das; he makes wonderful figurative paintings. My visit gave me a glimpse as to what was possible if art-making were taken to a high degree of professionalism. It was altogether a sublime experience! This just pushed me forward to paint more and think bigger. Yes, there are unfortunately some misunderstandings in some people's minds and they consider art as fringe or effeminate. This is deeper debate and I believe the fault is on both sides, the general public and artists.
MICHAEL: India seems like such an artistic, creative and exotic place to me. The people are gorgeous. It seems like India is becoming a player on the contemporary art scene. What do you think about this?
ADARSH: Wow, that's very flattering! As much as I certainly like to think so, I think every culture is just as inspiring. Since I grew up in India, often I find other cultures and civilizations, from Chinese to South African very interesting. But India tends to have a very particular feel when it comes to tastes, sounds, colors and the way people behave. There is almost a heightened sensibility of richness in culture one immediately tends to notice when they board off a plane to India. India is becoming a major player in contemporary art, both regionally and internationally. This is a great thing, because it’s about time art emerged in the market. Of course, this is a long time coming and it's an economic story as to why it took so long, but long story short, since the privatization of goods and services in India about 20 years ago, the average income has steadily risen and as a result, the average person has more disposable income to put towards buying art they love.
MICHAEL: That's very cool. Aren't you involved in some effort or group to expose kids to art? What's it all about?
ADARSH: Yes. About a year ago, it occurred to me that the problem with modern day education was that instead of education being a path to developing creative, smart and critical thinking individuals, modern day education was almost solely focused on cramming a bunch of information into a student and testing how well they can memorize it.
MICHAEL: No! Really? I never noticed.
ADARSH: Instead, I think education should be a phenomenon that happens during the process of building something, so basically the content of what a student learns is determined by the vision they are trying to create or the end-result they are attempting to achieve or problem they are trying to solve. You see, once an individual has a vision, or in other words an idea as to what they are going for in their work, the steps to get there inevitably become part of the process that should then be explored. Being that my background is in art, I started a tuition-free visual arts education program based out of Harlem for youth 11-17 year old. It’s called, “Adarsh Alphons Projects.” It's a non-profit that aims to actualize the method of education that I briefly mentioned above. How we do it is very simple; we expose the students to contemporary art via slideshows and museum trips and work with the students to map out their project (such as a triptych or an installation) and once we've set the vision, we work with them to actualize this vision by figuring out what processes they need to learn to make their project happen. It's about beauty and art, but it's also about problem-solving and achieving an end result. The teacher is more of a producer (the student is the director) and less of a pedagogical figure.
MICHAEL: I love that. Fantastic.
ADARSH: I started the program with 10 kids last summer and we’ve grown steadily over the year. Our summer program had 60 students. We are very fortunate to have found institutional support from some wonderful foundations recently which has allowed us to hire staff and teachers for the summer and hopefully beyond.
MICHAEL: This is exactly what's missing: art AND true education in the lives of students. It must be a struggle to keep this going. How do you remain inspired when you're probably seeking monetary support all the time ... like most art endeavors?
ADARSH: I think we have a long way to go. We have a lot more students to attract, art to create and funding to support all of it. I really believe philanthropy works. I think when people see something positive that works and shows results, they want to be a part of it. On the flip side, I lost every bit of shame I had asking people for money over this past year - it was rough! But I came out alive and every more relentless! That said, I love every minute of it, the highs are the highest I've ever felt and lows are the lowest, but I guess that's what happens when you start your own thing. Over the past year, I have also seen people act in extraordinary ways; parents who would do anything to support the program, friends offering me advice and being there for me when things were rough or backers who through their incredible insight, stood beside me as I started this thing with barely any resources, contacts, much less being an immigrant.
MICHAEL: What was it like being an immigrant coming to America? It couldn't have been easy.
ADARSH: It was fine. I imagine every immigrant has a different story, but the one thing that ties us all together is the fact that we all want to be here, though the reasons probably differ.
MICHAEL: Society for the most part still considers art a frill or something that isn't NEEDED. What do you think it'll take to turn this around? Does it need turning around?
ADARSH: Yes, it does need to be turned around. I think it will take economists and politicians acknowledging the importance of art in society's well being from all aspects.
MICHAEL: Indeed. It was great chatting with you. Thanks Adarsh.
For more information about Adarsh Alphons, check out his website at www.projectart.org.