Art Offers Youths a Creative Safe Haven


Chicago’s youth art programs help fill the gaps left by reduced or non-existent arts education in our public schools. For the city’s underserved youth in particular, extracurricular arts organizations provide havens where students can safely socialize, learn, and discover their own creative potential. These programs provide services that elevate art-making above the status of “leisure activity” by empowering youth to think creatively—not just about their art, but about their educational and life goals. Following are three profiles of non-profit art organizations that are making a difference in the lives of our city’s young people through art education, art therapy, and social services.



Founded by entrepreneur Steve Berkowitz in 1987, Marwen is one of the longest running—and most successful—youth art programs in Chicago. The organization (named after Berkowitz’s daughters, Marcy and Wendy) currently serves 1,000 students, from 6th through 12th grades, in more than 100 art programs.

Many students return to Marwen as adults to teach. “A really important aspect of Marwen is that we aim to work with kids over the arc of many terms and years,” says Antonia Contro, Marwen’s Executive Director for the past 20 years. “A young person can come here in sixth or seventh grade, stay through high school and then continue through work opportunities with our teaching-artist community.”

Marwen offers programs in traditional mediums such as painting, drawing and sculpture but also courses in new media, interdisciplinary arts, and design, including fashion design. Beyond offering a wide range of visual arts programs, one of Marwen’s goals is to get kids to think about their future potential, especially college.

“Marwen has a fantastic, nationally recognized college planning and career development program,” explains Contro. “We help young people understand post-secondary education, apply, and get into college.”

According to Contro, over 90 percent of Marwen participants — the majority of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds — are accepted into higher education programs. 


South Chicago Art Center

A world away from Marwen and its River North gallery neighbors is the South Chicago Art Center, located on 91st Street near the Calumet River. “It’s pretty much a cultural desert down here,” says Executive Director Sarah Ward. “We’re the only program that has served this neighborhood for the past 13 years, and it’s the only consistent after school program.”

Ward has a degree in art therapy from the Art Institute of Chicago. She sees multiple needs of the kids who live in the South Chicago neighborhood and participate in the Center’s programs.

“While some programs might fit snuggly into an art education box or a social services box, we fill [students’] needs on a holistic level,” says Ward.

In addition to offering 29 different programs for elementary, middle school, and high school kids—covering subjects like art, gardening, and cooking—the Center also feeds students if they’re hungry and helps provide basic necessities like clothing. Most important, the Center gives its students a safe and stable place to go to after school to avoid South Chicago’s random violence.

“They’re coming here to be in a safe place where people are not only going to teach them concepts and art, but they’re also going to be respected and heard,” explains Ward. “They don’t have to worry about the things that are going on outside of here.”

The Center recently purchased a new building at the corner of 91st St. and S. Houston Ave. and has launched a $2.5 million dollar fundraising campaign to pay for the move and needed renovations. Located across the street from the South Chicago Public Library and the South Chicago YMCA, the new home will provide even more safety and security for its students.

“It will greatly raise our profile,” says Ward about the relocation of the Center. “Plus we will have a gallery space, a kiln, and we’ll be open for more extended hours…it will become a really kid-friendly, safe space.”



Yollocalli means “heart of the house” in Nahuatl, the Aztec language. Located in Barrett Park in Chicago’s Little Village, this teen arts program is an outreach initiative of the National Museum of Mexican Art.

Unlike many youth arts programs in the city, Yollocalli’s courses are structured as open-studio residencies. 

“It’s not really teaching,” says Director Vanessa Sanchez of Yollocalli’s approach, “but more like a mentor relationship.” 

The students, in turn, collaborate on their instructor’s projects. As a prime example, Sanchez cites a recent collaboration with 96 Acres, a series of site-specific works and events headed by artist Maria Gaspar. Students worked alongside artists to stencil phrases and questions on the walls and sidewalks surrounding the Cook County Jail. In a technique called “reverse graffiti,” the participants “inscribed” words onto surfaces using a powerwasher.

“Instead of applying paint to a surface, you’re cleaning a surface,” explains Sanchez.

In addition to other street art classes, Yollocalli also offers unique programs like Digital Journalism, where students use narrative and storytelling in the manner of This American Life or Snap Judgement to create their own podcasts.

To Sanchez, many of Yollocalli’s benefits are more intangible than the practical skills that students learn. “I think it helps build their character,” says Sanchez. “They always let us know how much they loved their time with us and how they’ve continued the tradition of giving back to the community or doing something positive for whatever neighborhood they’re from or for the city at-large.”


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Pictured at top of page: students at the South Chicago Art Center