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Art center aims to enrich Northwest Gardens

When the Young at Art ArtHouse opens Saturday in one of Fort Lauderdale's poorest neighborhoods, it will become the first public art studio in South Florida built by residents for residents.

The upscale art hub will open its doors amid the rows of periwinkle-colored apartments in the city's Northwest Gardens housing project. Residents say an art center in the heart of their low-income neighborhood will offer a vibrant boom of right-brained activities for parents and children.

The ArtHouse was conceived by Davie's Young at Art Museum, which gutted and renovated a ramshackle duplex to create the site. The 1,600-square-foot building at 821 NW 12th Terrace is flush with enough amenities to rival many professional studios, including a kiln, a clay slab roller, a trio of potter's wheels, four painting easels and a printing press. Indoors, the walls are covered with aquamarine paint and splashed with charcoal-gray accents.

Any Northwest Gardens resident with proof of residency — there are about 1,000 — will be given access to an array of art classes, movie screenings and songwriter open mikes. For the literary set, there will be poetry and story circles. Six days a week, it will serve as a free community refuge.

"We're real poor around here. We don't have art supplies," says Helen Moore, who moved to Northwest Gardens a year ago with her 9-year-old son, Franklin, and 2-year-old daughter, Zalen. "But when you put a safe gem like this in this community, it builds up my son's self-esteem and keeps him off the streets. I want my kids — all our kids — to get exposed to art."

Young at Art partnered with the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority to break ground on the ArtHouse in February 2013, the same year the museum defaulted on a $10 million loan fronted by county taxpayers to build the children's museum in western Davie. Earlier this month, county commissioners agreed to let the embattled nonprofit museum repay the loan at $350,000 per year for the next 37 years.

Despite Young at Art's outstanding debt, Mindy Shrago, the museum's CEO and executive director, says grants and donations are footing the construction bill — not the museum — and paying the salaries of "two to four" museum employees to staff the ArtHouse.

"We didn't have to commit any money from our operating budget. So, absolutely not, this will not interfere," Shrago says. "These are grants we wouldn't receive unless we were serving this low-income constituency, to inspire and lead them to successful pathways with art."

Inspiring and rallying the residents took months of building trust and a reliable presence, ArtHouse manager Marie Berlin says. She founded a seven-member, resident-driven community board to manage every aspect of the center, from interior paint to operating hours. (Closing Sundays for church was one of the board's first unanimous decisions.)

"It's not just our house. It's their house," Berlin says. "This is so much more than a community center – they already have one of those four blocks south. Initially, [the parents] wanted to drop off their kids and leave. Now that they've been involved at every stage, the parents love it, too. They see it as art therapy."

Residents pitched in on ArtHouse from the outset, including the design of a half-dozen mosaic-tiled, cast-concrete benches, each painted with drawings of smiley-face suns, child handprints, pet dogs — personalized stamps of ownership — to be placed throughout the neighborhood. Miami-based public artist Carlos Alvez, who led the project to spur "a little creativity," says the in-progress benches should be unveiled at the grand opening.

"It's a wonderful way to advertise how artistic the neighborhood is," says Alvez, who hopes future projects include a public art exhibition. "These people are getting beautiful communities and now a great studio. What we're doing is contagious."

Also pitching in: the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority Step-Up Apprenticeship program, whose 22 workers, typically high-school dropouts with criminal records, rehab properties in exchange for career skills. They were dispatched in March to give a face-lift to the ArtHouse, once part of the row of deteriorating, World War II-era concrete cottages called the Dr. Kennedy Homes. Several members of the Step-Up crew are Northwest Gardens residents.

"They helped us shave off a lot of the cost," says Scott Strawbridge, the housing authority's facilities director, who also oversaw the buildout of Northwest Gardens. "Art is just the thing to bring together the neighborhood."

Other funding arrived with $200,000 in matching grants by the Community Foundation of Broward and the housing authority, along with a $150,000 Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Strawbridge says. Swedish retailer Ikea donated furniture, including sofa seating, tables, chairs and a wardrobe closet for storing art supplies. Walmart chipped in paint and brushes.

"It'll help people respect the community," says 17-year-old Fiona Lewis, a poet and Dillard High School student, of the ArtHouse building. She lives across the street and sits on the community board. Between studying for the SAT, she wants to spend her free time writing free verse at the studio while her younger brothers take art classes.

"The model is really unique, and blossomed much faster than we expected. This is something for them. It's a sense of gratitude," the ArtHouse's Berlin says. "They put their blood and sweat into this."

Young at Art ArtHouse grand opening

When: 12:30-4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22

Where: Young at Art ArtHouse, 821 NW 12th Terrace, Fort Lauderdale

Cost: Free

Contact: 954-424-0085 or, 954-356-4364 or Twitter @philvalys

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