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Community arts center offers something for everyone

By Marilyn HoffmanStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 4, 1980



New York

Whether it is a four-year-old child or an 80-year-old elder who comes through the red door of the Jamaica Arts Center, director Vivian Warfield figures they've come in to add a little joy and sunshine to often bleak lives as well as to learn to dance, and paint, and pot, and craft.

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Her idea is to make such a smorgasbord of classes, workshops, exhibitions, concerts, and plays available to everyone in the community so that each will go away stimulated, enlarged, and satisfied, but wanting more -- always more -- of this culturally enriching fare.

The arts center, housed in a spacious old former government building, is one of the pivotal points of the revitalization efforts of the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation.

The nonprofit arts center serves a broad group. School classes are bussed in for special art classes. Business people and shoppers on Jamaica Avenue drop in to view art exhibitions or for lunchtime entertainment. Many choose the weekend classical music concerts. And teen-agers come after school to take classical ballet lessons, or learn folk dances from Africa and many other parts of the world.

Today the center bustles with visitors. Yet, when Vivian Warfield became executive director of the center in 1978, the center was underused. It was largely unknown to the 400,000 residents of the "culturally underserved" area of southeast Queens. Of this multi-ethnic group, some 265,000 are black Americans, the remainder are largely Hispanic, Asian, Korean, Arab, and Greek.

With the help of publicity and radio promotion, within two years Mrs. Warfield has succeeded in filling all the classes and workshops which are given by a faculty 35 leading artists.

Last summer alone, more than 1,200 children took courses at the center, keeping them off city streets while they learned new skills. They take everything from elementary music theory to theater techniques, percussion and jazz music, to drawing and photography. Once a year, she offers a free "portfolio development" class to high school graduates who are trying to enter art and design schools. Many of the services of the centre are offered free. A nominal fee is charged for some courses. Today thousands of people are involved and are taking advantage of what the center offers.

Mrs. Warfield spent six years as a staff assistant at the Ford Foundation, has worked as a volunteer at the Malcolm X Art Center Inc. in central Harlem, and has headed the urban arts program at the Cultural Center for the Arts in Canton, Ohio.

She holds a master's degree in community arts management from Sangamon State University, Springfield, Ill., and was recently named one of 10 Charles Revson fellows on the future of the city of New York, which provides a stipend of $15, 000 and a year of study at Columbia University, where she plans to enlarge her knowledge of African influences in the culture of the Americas.

When Vivian Warfield came back to Jamaica Avenue in the Queens to head the center, it was a return to her own childhood neighborhood. "I remembered it as it had been, pretty and orderly, with flourishing businesses and eight big movie houses -- a good place to grow up," she recalls.

"I decided I had to accept this job and come back and do my part in lifting off the blight that had befallen the area. I knew a cultural center, right in the heart of things, could help raise people's spirits and give some underpinnings to community life. A lot of other blacks have come back to lend a hand as well, and we are pleased to be seeing the turnaround."