Arts and Entertainment

The Budding Artists of Manhattan

The Manhattan Borough Arts Festival continues to showcase the works of the creative youth educated in Manhattan’s public schools in this insightful exhibit.

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Grandparents cluster around beaming children as they stand against the walls, brushing the picture frames of colored pencil drawings with their tiny shoulders. Tiptoed teenagers crane their necks to scan the periphery of the gallery for their artwork. Parents lean in to read printed plaques displaying the names of their children and brief descriptions of their inspirations and techniques. From the railing by the entrance to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), a large open staircase descends directly into the exhibit. The room itself is plain, but the walls are adorned with the brilliant colors and textures of student artwork.

The Manhattan Borough Arts Festival celebrated its 10th annual showcase this spring. Organized by NYC Public Schools in partnership with the NYCDOE Arts Office and the MoMa, the Visual Arts Exhibit showcases the work of artists attending Manhattan public schools in grades kindergarten through high school. The show represents 60 different schools and displays 127 pieces of artwork in the Education and Research Building of the MoMA. It features collages, drawings, works of photography, sculptures, short films, and paintings large and small. Every piece is paired with a plaque that reveals the name of the artist, their school and principal, their art teacher, and a short statement on the backstory of the featured piece. The exhibition was open through Sunday, June 2nd. 

The variety of ages featured in the exhibit makes the experience feel like a reordered timeline. The walls are spangled with the work of young elementary students: drawings of pets on vividly colored backgrounds, self-portraits with wide eyes, and sculpture models made of paper and clay. Each bright picture is identified by a cheery sentence or two on how the artist felt that day and why they decided to portray their chosen subject. One piece that resonates depicts a gray, striped cat perched on a rug while the moon peeks through the window. The painting, done by 3rd grader Claire Lee and titled Cat in the Night, strongly attracts viewers due to the specific blue-violet shade of the walls—not a shade you would typically find in a school watercolor set, but a color one could imagine a young girl mixing with thoughtful consideration. Something so simple expresses so much affection and care for the art being created.

Woven through the gallery walls is another set of pieces created by students in their later elementary and middle school years, where elements of new boldness and innovation allude to the artists experimenting with new techniques that seep through the composition. Now, faces begin to take on more realistic features, colors are more thoughtfully arranged, and the artists’ statements dive deeper to convey the purpose and personal significance of the pieces. These artists must have begun with the same construction paper collages and loopy smiling portraits as their younger counterparts but are now maturing into juvenile artists and can express more emotion and purpose in what they create. The piece on the furthest wall is titled Quebec and was created by 8th grader Lavina Zhang in chalk pastel pencil. The image depicts an aerial view of a cityscape fallen just past dusk. The plaque explains how the artist was inspired by an image her art teacher had shown her and that she chose the medium that was most challenging to her. It was clear that the piece was saturated with outside influences as the artist was learning new techniques and finding new places from which to draw inspiration. 

The works created by the oldest art students from high schools across the borough are woven through the remaining spaces on each wall. These are the most advanced pieces; they perform with the most mastery of medium and technique. Artwork in this category typically alludes to more serious themes and conveys the deepest messages about the creators’ emotions, circumstances, and outlooks. The artists’ statements are the longest, but they are also the most diverse in what they choose to discuss. One of the first pieces a gallery-walker will see after descending the stairs is a large canvas gilded with gold leaf in the negative space created by an image of two girls. Their clothes blend together as the fabric depicts scenes of the duo and others doing different activities, like a photo montage. Twelfth grader Beatrice Bui-Reilly explains that the scenes are of her fondest memories with her sister, whom she illustrates alongside her in her oil painting. She dives into how she chose memories and iconography relating to her Vietnamese heritage and how she used the gold leaf to display the “golden” qualities of their relationship. This piece, and countless others done by the teenage artists featured in the exhibition, showcases how they have not only mastered their styles and techniques but also think broadly and are intentional with their subjects, mediums, and procedures.

Throughout the exhibit, the theme of diaspora appears again and again. From all ages, the artists express homesickness for the countries they or their parents immigrated from. Many of the artists come from low-ranked and underfunded schools, yet their art is no less impressive. The program’s initiative is to represent a diverse selection of artists, and this attempt seems genuine and reflected in the actual exhibit. While the more well-known art high schools are represented more than others, and their materials are obviously more advanced, there is no gap between schools when it comes to creativity or quality. No matter how inadequately funded or prestigious the art program is at one of these schools, the students are no different in their talent. 

The superintendent of District 6 acknowledges in his featured mission statement how engaging in art improves students’ inclination to expand their academic and social skills. He stresses the relevance of this as the district engages in a movement to improve academic performance for all students, especially English Language Learners. 

The fact that the pieces are not categorized by age group and are instead interspersed creates a vibrant tessellation of expression and style. The different levels of expertise in the student work don’t feel dissonant; in fact, every side of the gallery blooms with varied compositions and uninterrupted arrays of color. Though the arrangement may seem sporadic, it provides the beholder with clarity—this is not just an art exhibit with the sole purpose of exhibiting beauty or creativity. Instead, the Manhattan Borough Arts Festival reveals the striking passion for art in the adolescents of New York. It reminds any person walking through the show that when artmaking is used as a tool for self-discovery, it gains a power that everyone can enjoy.