"It's important to have the absolute highest expectations of young people."
— Susan Rodgerson
Most fine artists define their careers by successfully selling their work and exhibiting in galleries—but for Susan Rodgerson, 15 years as a working artist only served as the foundation for a greater, more meaningful vision. In 1991, a single painting changed Susan's life—and, in turn, the lives of the many talented young people who call Artists for Humanity in South Boston their "home away from home."
In 1986, a unique project got Susan thinking more about life outside the studio. "I was involved in an organization that used art to raise money for the Four Corners Native American reservation," Susan recalls. "We had an art auction and raised a quarter million dollars to help the tribes' elders defend their lands." The project gave Susan a valuable education in the politics of raising money—and, more important, gave her a new appreciation for collaboration. "I got out of the studio, where I was working alone, and realized how much I wanted to be engaged and part of a community," says Susan.
When she had the opportunity to take over a teaching position from a friend, she discovered
another unexpected passion: working with middle school and high school students. For Susan, this sparked an idea. "I wanted to use my love of working with youth to empower them through the same process that had empowered me."
The project she first envisioned was simple: create large, collaborative paintings with a group of young people and sell them to local businesses. She identified a school and six participants who were eager to have their voices heard—and Susan asked them what they wanted their art to say. "They wanted to talk about education," says Susan, "so our painting represented the 'road to education.'" The piece featured both collaborative and individual elements, with each artist contributing a square that told their story.
Apparently it was a story well worth telling: the Nellie Mae Education Foundation paid $6,000 to reproduce the painting on the cover of their 1992 annual report—which went on to win awards for its design. Artists for Humanity had successfully completed its first job.
"What Else Can We Do?"
At that point, Susan didn't have clear plans for the future of the organization. The young people, however, wanted to keep the momentum going after the end of the school year. "I was about to drive them home after we were finished, and they said, 'What else can we do?'" So Susan began bringing them to her personal studio in Boston's South End. Throughout the summer, they were there waiting for her there in the morning, and she'd drive them home at night.
Soon, expanding Artists for Humanity became a necessity, as Susan's own art projects took a backseat to the burgeoning program. "I was supposed to be completing a body of work for a gallery that was paying the rent for the studio," Susan recalls, "but the work stopped when I met those young people." She moved from the South End to a space on A Street in Fort Point, expanding her area from 500 to 10,000 square feet. In addition to enabling her to grow Artists for Humanity, the space also served as currency: she traded studio space to artists in exchange for their teaching services, and the program that exists today began to take shape.
Partnering with groups of youth, the trained artists mentor their students in all aspects of the art world, from conceptualization to creation to marketing. Not only are the young people expressing themselves creatively, they're also active on the front lines of the business, attending meetings with clients and participating in negotiations. In short, they're learning how to be professionals—and the fact that they're paid for their work at Artists for Humanity reinforces the mentality that their time and contributions are valuable.
The program was up and running on A Street when Susan first met Harriet Lewis, who visited the facility because Grand Circle Foundation was considering Artists for Humanity as the recipient of a $2,500 community grant. "Harriet was so incredibly excited," Susan remembers. "I think she bought a painting that very first day." Susan continued reapplying for the grant each year, and the relationship grew. "It's really important to have partnerships with people who can help grow your vision," says Susan.
Journey to the EpiCenter
In 2000, booming property development in the Fort Point area threatened to leave Artists for
Humanity homeless once again—but Susan saw the forced move as an opportunity to take a giant step forward. She decided to raise money for her own space. "I had never raised a huge amount before," says Susan. "We were always a shoestring operation." Immediately, she turned to Alan and Harriet at Grand Circle Foundation. "They gave us a million dollars for our new building right off the bat," says Susan.
The Artists for Humanity EpiCenter was opened in 2004 with the capacity to employ 130 young people—a long way from the 6 students who co-founded the program with Susan in 1991. "Being in this building has really changed the landscape of the program," says Susan. The building is also changing the landscape of architectural design in Boston: it's the first and only project in the city to earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Numerous renewable energy technologies—including a natural ventilation system that keeps the building cool in summer without the need for air conditioning—allow Artists for Humanity to save more than $66,000 in energy costs each year.
"Without Alan and Harriet's leadership, we would not be here," says Susan. "They have been great partners." When Alan asked Susan to join the advisory board for his Pinnacle Leadership Institute, she readily accepted. "I was pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to his vision."
Big Dreams for a Bright Future
Ever ambitious, Susan is currently working on an exciting plan to expand Artists for Humanity. A new focus on industrial design projects will require additional space; the young people have already been designing bicycle racks to promote environmental awareness in Boston and creating furniture from recycled magazines (including a table made from Grand Circle and OAT catalogs especially for Alan and Harriet Lewis).
Susan also wants to help provide job training for young people who are out of school—especially those who have gotten into trouble on the streets or who have been incarcerated. While Artists For Humanity has worked with these vulnerable youth populations through its general programming, Susan sees real opportunity for developing a more formal, certificate-based job training program that would better assist them with reentry to the community and workforce. Encouraged by Alan and Harriet's support of another Grand Circle partner, Robert Lewis of The Boston Foundation, Susan believes the timing is right for initiating this program.
The next step for Susan, though, is talking to partners about building a center for creative industries. "We need more space to heighten our impact on young people and create more opportunities for community involvement," says Susan. "I want to expand from 24,000 square feet to 75,000—and add a store, a gallery, a café, and on-site manufacturing capabilities … I want it to be a destination that builds membership, with a gallery for youth-created art that gives youth from around the world a united voice."
Considering what Susan has grown from a six-person operation in 1991, there is little doubt that she'll make it happen. And Grand Circle Foundation, as always, is proud to support her vision.