Model Arts Program for Youth 'Watches' Out for Itself

With NEA funds dwindling, this talented group from New Orleans clinches profitable design work

When Swatch set out to commemorate the United Nations' 50th anniversary with a new wristwatch, it didn't enlist a famous artist or a major design firm. Instead the colorful Swiss watchmaker hired a bunch of yayas from the Big Easy.

Make that YA/YAs, the alias of some 30 high school and college students who spend their afternoons in a funky downtown studio called Young Aspirations/Young Artists. Since 1988 they have been painting their hopes and fears on secondhand chairs and chifforobes (a chest of drawers, or chiffonier, crossed with a wardrobe).

Galleries in New York and Paris have sold their work for up to $1,500. YA/YA gives half the money to the artists and their families, puts 30 percent in a fund for their college tuition, and keeps 20 percent to help pay for supplies.

For contractual reasons, YA/YA will not disclose its earnings on the UN watch. But the nonprofit group says its revenue comes increasingly from sales and commissions. These supplied more than half its income last year - up from 21 percent in 1994 and 13 percent in 1993 - according to a preliminary accounting.

As federal funding dwindles, YA/YA represents a way some arts organizations might stay out of the red. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is operating with 40 percent less money than last year. And few arts administrators expect relief from President Clinton, who vowed last month that ''the era of big government is over.''

Private donors say nonprofit organizations can offset federal cutbacks by marketing themselves more aggressively. They could not ask for a finer example than YA/YA, says Kimber Crain of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. ''People think that because arts organizations are nonprofit they don't use good business practices,'' he says. ''It simply isn't true, and Ya/Ya has demonstrated that as well as anyone.''

Swatch has hired the young artists to design three watches, numerous catalog illustrations, and 582 chair covers for the UN's General Assembly. Other commissions include chairs, murals, and textiles for restaurants and retail stores, MTV, and film director Spike Lee.

But money isn't everything, says Missy Bowen, YA/YA's director. ''The real payoff is the experience kids get from working and traveling to fill these contracts,'' she says. So far they have been to Italy, France, Holland, Japan, Germany, England, Singapore, and Malaysia.

Behind YA/YA's success is its founder, Jana Napoli. A painter herself, Ms. Napoli says she aims to help students find professional opportunities in the arts. It would be easy to portray her, brush in hand, as a woman who redeems the anguished lives of inner-city kids. YA/YA graduate Lionel Milton counsels otherwise in a mural drawn just inside the studio. Above one cartoon figure, a balloon of text reads: ''Basicly we wer' all gang members and drug-dealers from dah projet an' dis rich white woman kame an' said, put down dem guns, honey, an' paint me a chair ... NOT!''

Among the sarcasm are grains of truth. Napoli is white. She takes no salary. And she charges YA/YA no rent for the ground floor of her town house near the French Quarter. But the likeness ends there.

''I'm not Mother Teresa and I didn't fix these kids,'' she says. ''I haven't done anything except give them space and take off the hobbles of prejudice. What you see is their voice. It was there all along.''

Napoli is an unflinching social critic. Just ask her how so many talented teens ended up in the vocational track at Rabouin High School, where YA/YA recruits its artists. ''They're not considered smart enough for a fancy public high school because they're visual learners,'' she says.

Napoli believes that some people think more clearly with images than words. ''All the tests they give in school measure verbal skills, and the tests say these kids are stupid.'' While leafing through some photos of their work, she adds, ''That's not what I see. I see intelligence in action. I see beauty, humor, courage. I see art.''

It is no accident that most of the students are African Americans, either. Napoli says she saw some of them waiting for a bus a few years ago. Nearby, white merchants shook their heads as if to say, ''They'll never amount to anything.'' But in YA/YA's painting and textile workshops, the distinction between white and black turns less on racial lines than on aesthetic concerns.

Not unlike a European craft guild, YA/YA requires artists to produce and sell a certain quality of work to climb from entry level to apprentice to guild member. Some work as office interns.

Texas artist-architect Michael Schroeder was so impressed with YA/YA's goals and guild structure that he and two artist friends started a similar program in San Antonio two years ago. Called Say Si, it works chiefly with young Latino artists.

Another fan is NEA chairman Jane Alexander, who calls YA/YA ''truly remarkable.'' After visiting two years ago, she said, ''They don't all become artists ... but they all learn the skills needed ... to go out into the world and succeed: discipline, self-esteem, collaboration, and problem-solving.''

But many of these young artists do find employment in their field. Lionel Milton is illustrating a book. Dexter Stewart works as a photographer and layout artist for MTV and Nickelodeon in New York. Carlos Neville directs a community arts organization in Gadsden, Ala. Brian McMillan owns a silk-screening business in New Orleans. And at least a dozen others are in college.

''I was awfully shy when I started at YA/YA,'' says Edwin Riley, now a sophomore at Tulane University in New Orleans. ''Now I've just gotta be me.'' Being himself has earned Riley nearly $15,000 since 1989 from the sale of his artwork.

The ascent does not always go smoothly. On a recent afternoon, YA/YA staff met with an artist who had slipped below a C average in school. They placed him on probation for one quarter and said he must pull up his grades before working in the studio again. YA/YA arranged for the student to take remedial classes in the evenings, and invited him to continue to attend weekly student meetings and group counseling sessions.

Later, at one of those sessions, two artists locked horns in a verbal dispute. ''The reason we have them meet with Dr. C,'' says Napoli, referring to the clinical social worker who visits each week, ''is to help them learn how to solve problems early on. You're always going to have someone in your environment who's blocking your way. The challenge is not to let them determine your future.''

Afterward, tensions were cooler in the design studio, where Brandon Duhon and several other artists were drawing giraffes, elephants, cats, and fish. They were creating the whimsical menagerie, like much of their recent work, on commission.

In the last three years, YA/YA has earned more than $400,000 from sales and commissions. But that figure is deceptive, Ms. Bowen says, in that it doesn't take into account the cost of materials, travel, and legal help. Without a series of grants from the NEA, totaling $225,131 since 1993, she doubts YA/YA could have grown so successfully.

''We've had a few exceptionally talented kids,'' says Napoli, ''and a few who grew to be exceptionally talented. It's not easy sometimes to see the hidden treasure, but it's there in every one of these kids.''

* YA/YA chairs and hand-screened banners are on view through Feb. 28 at 171 Cedar Arts Center in Corning, N.Y.

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