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William Grant Still Arts Center brings arts education to West Adams neighborhood's youth

Outside William Grant Still Arts Center on West View Street (Sarah Zahedi)

Director Amitis Motevalli outside WGSAC with students (Sarah Zahedi)

View William Grant Still Arts Center in a larger map

Inside WGSAC

Take a look inside the WGSAC building.

Music composed by Dr. William Grant Still
William Grant Still (1895-1978) composed the 'Afro-American Symphony' in 1930. Listen to the finale here.

By Sarah Zahedi

With Los Angeles public schools facing continuous cuts to their art programs, staff members at the William Grant Still Arts Center (WGSAC) in the West Adams neighborhood are working to ensure that students from all socioeconomic backgrounds have access to a cultural arts education.

Founded in 1977 as a facility of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, WGSAC arranges arts, dance, comedy and music classes for youth in addition to early education classes and workshops for children and families, which range from zero to five dollars per class.

WGSAC was named after African-American classical composer Dr. William Grant Still, who first coined the term “art music”. Director Amitis Motevalli of WGSAC said Dr. Grant’s idea of “art music” as a means of expression and experimentation aligns with the educational goals of the community arts center.

“We believe our community arts programs are a great way to engage youth and open their perspectives to cultural arts and innovation,” Motevalli said. “They become more in touch with their community, their city, their state, their country and their world.”

Since 1999, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has invested more than $300 million in its elementary arts programs. However, in 2008, LAUSD made a 40 percent reduction to these programs.

Voting in October 2012 to label arts education as a “core subject” and prohibit further cuts to arts programs, LAUSD has since sought to end cuts to public school arts programs.

Still, because the district’s plan to restore arts education to public schools is not scheduled to bring funding for the programs back to pre-recession levels until 2017, director Amitis Motevalli of WGSAC said she hopes the center’s arts programs can help combat this issue by offering both free and low-cost arts programs to youth in the area.

“We don’t want cost to be a barrier to our students in attaining an arts education,” Motevalli said. “Even if students can’t afford our classes, we will find a way to offer financial assistance and make it work.”

As director of WGSAC for the past four years, Motevalli said she has seen children get their first exposure to an arts education at the center, which they may have not had access to otherwise.

“We have toddlers getting their first experience using scissors to make arts and crafts, children playing on their first recorder and others playing their first instruments,” Motevalli said. “This community needs a space that facilitates that process and we want to be that location.”

In order to provide youth with a quality arts education, administrators at WGSAC bring in prominent artists who have worked in the community as well as internationally to teach classes and workshops.

Supporting WGSAC for the past 15 years, Cynthia Davis, an assistant professor at Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science also works as a teacher of doll-making workshops at the center. Davis said WGSAC’s location in South Los Angeles has filled a void in the area.

“The center is in an area where there are not a lot of art-related activities, particularly for children,” Davis said. “We need something stable in the community where children can have a learning environment that keeps them interested in the arts.”

After being laid off as an art teacher for LAUSD five years ago, Diane Wright began working with youth at WGSAC as a jazz and vocal class instructor. Like Davis, Wright said she looks at her move from LAUSD to WGSAC as a blessing.

“The center affords me great opportunities to utilize my skills from my previous jobs and to work with kids that don’t always have much exposure to the arts,” Wright said. “The children I work with are wonderful and are getting a very well-rounded education in the arts here, so we need this place.”

Beyond its arts classes and workshops, WGSAC also organizes professionally produced arts exhibitions to expose youth and other community members to cultural arts.

Since 2009, WGSAC has held an annual African-American Composer Exhibition Series from February to April, including panels, concerts, music displays and workshops to celebrate the life and work of an African-American composer and to teach children about each of these composer’s legacies.

The center also puts on an annual Black Doll Show, which, since 1982, has run from December through February. The show was inspired by a doll test conducted by Mamie and Kenneth Clark in the 1940s, which concluded that due to social stigmas, many African-American children preferred white dolls over black dolls. Motevalli said she wants the doll show to help youth to understand the history and the importance of cultural representation for African-Americans and for all people of color.

“We will continue to do these shows until the test is reversed—until you can go around the world and no child is going to say that they prefer neither a white doll nor a black doll over the other,” Motevalli said.

As youth come to WGSAC to learn about the arts and take part in the center’s workshops and exhibits, Motevalli said the center’s administrators aim to ignite a continued passion for the arts among students.

“Our students can develop their talents and can change their way of thinking about the arts here through music performance, through painting and through creation,” Motevalli said. “From here they continue to grow and often go on to play music, dance and create art at more advanced levels.”

In this way, Motevalli said she ultimately hopes the center’s art initiatives can help subdue the issue of lacking arts education opportunities for youth in the West Adams neighborhood, even as LAUSD begins increasing funding for arts programs in public schools.

“There’s always room for more creativity and there’s always a need, ” Motevalli said. “We are here for this community and want the center to serve as a conduit for many new ways of artistic expression and thinking.”

Reach Sarah Zahedi here.