The Summer Arts Enrichment Institute
and the LEGACY OF Youth Programming AT the Arts Exchange
One of the founding pillars of the Arts Exchange that made it an accessible and inclusive center for community and the arts was its wealth of youth programming, as exemplified by the 8-week Summer Arts Enrichment Institute of the 1980s and 90s. An affordable, multidisciplinary summer day camp for children 5 to 15, the Institute offered families of all backgrounds the opportunity to provide their children quality, artist-taught arts enrichment, recreation, education, and life skills.
The first institute was conceived in 1985 by board member Alice Lovelace, who designed and directed the comprehensive experience assisted by professional artists, many with studios at the Arts Exchange. After Alice became executive director in 1986, she continued to design the summer experience, AND turned to Theresa Davis to manage the day-to-day operations of the Institute.
Theresa created programming that ranged from poetry, gardening, arts and crafts, film criticism, and theater. She filled whatever roles were necessary to run the camp and give every child a quality experience.
“The kids enjoyed themselves,” She Remembers, “...They showed up eager and ready to do things, and you didn’t really have to convince them. They were just there for it… and it helps that many of the kids were children of artists, so they had an appreciation for art, quality of people’s time, and personal responsibility.” - Theresa Davis
Students numbered near 100, with children from diverse backgrounds. Some were children of artists, government officials, lawyers, and doctors; but an equal number came from the community surrounding the Arts Exchange, or from programs like Families First. Each year the staff was supplemented by 10 youth workers provided by the City of Atlanta. Each student was assigned a teacher-mentor and received special time and arts instruction. Some workers shadowed and supported the administrative staff as well.
The Institute provided an inexpensive and affordable option for families, making it a vital asset to the community at large; it gave children from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to interact, develop their creative minds, explore the arts, and have fun in a safe environment while school was out. The programming was diverse and interdisciplinary, and played a role in the future development of many young artists’ careers.
One year, students were inspired by Davis’ film criticism class, and decided to put together a production of the 1980s comedy/horror musical, Little Shop of Horrors. Arts Exchange board member Logan Kearse built the play’s famously mischievous talking plant, Audrey II, and Jahi Kearse, Logan’s son, played the story’s protagonist, the absent minded floral shop attendant Seymour. The production was just one of the many instances where students got the chance to explore and study hands-on storytelling, character development, and performance.
Several of the Institute’s students, including Jahi, went on to continue their theater and dance training at Freddie Hendricks’ Youth Ensemble of Atlanta, and have continued to flourish with careers in the theater arts. Jahi’s gone on to Broadway and beyond, starring in musicals like “Holler If Ya Hear Me” and “Baby It’s You!”. He most recently played Dr. King in the touring show “I Have A Dream”. “It was pretty awesome.” Davis remembers.
“[The kids] felt really accomplished, and it’s really cool that a lot of those kids that were part of that process ended up being singers and dancers in musical theater and social justice theater.”
Each year, the Institute took a critical deep dive, exploring specific cultures through all manner of disciplines. One summer, the focus was South Africa, which meant the students learned the Boot Dance of the country’s miners, painted images of hope for the African continent, and wrote poems inspired by all they were learning. It was 1987 and Apartheid ruled in South Africa, so the program also incorporated discussions on the oppressive system, inequality, and social justice. In addition to an exhibit of their art, and a performance that included various South African dances, students created a chapbook of poetry entitled ‘Soaring on the Wings of Freedom’.
In 1987, the Institute’s staff included Rebecca Williams teaching drama and dance. A professional actor in her own right, Williams went on to play a classic role in the Academy Award-winning epic film Forrest Gump (1994). In one of the film’s most iconic scenes, with the famous line, “Life is like a box of chocolates…”, Williams plays the young, tired nurse waiting at the bus stop bench with Tom Hanks’ titular character Forrest Gump, who famously regales her with his life story. Williams passed away a few years later, but her impact on the lives of the children she taught and her fellow teachers like Theresa was broad-reaching and visceral.
Recently, Forrest Gump was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", and Rebecca’s legacy is planted there, as well.
Another fellow Arts Exchange founder, poet and activist Ebon Dooley, had two children enrolled in the summer program. His daughters Teressa Hale-Mathurin and Anita Hale were among the children who benefited from the Summer Institute. TERESSA found herself immersed in the arts from a young age because of places like the Neighborhood Arts Center and the Arts Exchange. She attended the Institute between the ages of 5 and 10, where she took her first classes in theater and dance. She herself has gone on to incorporate the arts in her work today as a behavioral health specialist, helping clients of all ages and backgrounds reach better mental health and successful lives.
As Teressa explains:
“It’s about paying it forward…you have the youth that come up in [the arts] — they benefit from it: they take it with them, and they create, and they become these awesome adults, and they pass it along to the next generation…You know, the kids are our future leaders, so it definitely is needed and will impact them, so that they can be the best that they can be in whatever it is that they decide to do in life.”
As we move on to the next chapter in the Arts Exchange’s history in East Point, one can only imagine what the programming might look like in this new space and this new era. Given the legacy of our past, it is sure to be unique and life-changing for adults and children.