Program Profile

Feature Issue on Careers in The Arts for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities

Teaming for Opportunity

Author(s)

Lydia Campbell-Maher is vice president of programs at ArtMix in Indianapolis, Indiana. She may be reached at lydia@artmixindiana.org.

Forty-two youth with and without disabilities are coming together this summer, despite the ongoing pandemic, to create beautiful artwork in the ArtMix studios in downtown Indianapolis. Resilience is a common trait found among these young artists. Each day, the youth put on their protective facemasks, check their temperatures, sanitize their hands, and then get down to business creating ceramic masterpieces with the guidance of professional teaching artists. It is an opportunity to not only learn new artistic skills and make friends, but also to earn a paycheck and build resumes.

First Lady Michelle Obama, a Black woman wearing a black, no-sleeve dress, stands, smiling with her arms at her sides. A gray-haired woman with glasses holds an award and stands next to a young woman with brown, straight, shoulder-length hair, who is smiling.

First Lady Michelle Obama, Meghan McNeal, and Linda Wisler at the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards Ceremony at the White House in 2015.

The lack of equitable employment opportunities for people with disabilities led Artmix to create the Urban Artisans program in 2003. It is a creative internship program that teaches high school students with disabilities transferable, vocational skills through making, marketing, and selling artwork. Led by ArtMix teaching artists, student interns work as a team to create products in arts mediums such as clay, fiber, paint, and wire. In the process, the interns gain confidence and the skills needed to transition from school to the workplace. The program focuses on teaching a combination of artistic, vocational, and social skills through the arts. Since the program’s inception, hundreds of youth with and without disabilities have participated, with many students finding employment and/or pursuing higher education.

The program was co-founded by Linda Wisler and Emily Compton, two talented artists with unwavering dedication to their students. The Urban Artisans program framework was modeled after the well-known Gallery 37 Advanced Arts Education Program of Chicago Public Schools and was designed using the U.S. Department of Labor’s SCANS (Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills) standards and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Annually, more than 100 youth participate in this internship program. The artwork that is created can be found in multiple galleries, small businesses, and at festivals throughout the state. All the sales of artwork go directly back into the sustainability of the program.

The program faces many of the same challenges as other non-profit organizations, including maintaining annual grant requirements without the security of long-term support and competing for unrestricted private funding. Some of the greatest challenges we have witnessed, however, are the limiting beliefs about the talent and resilience of the youth served.

Funders, communities where people with disabilities live, and sometimes even family members can miss the substantial artistic talent of these artists.

“The reason we have been successful is that we have extremely high expectations,” co-founder Wisler recently told me. “The interns rise to the occasion, every single time.”

In 2015, the Urban Artisans interns’ resilience and talent were recognized with a prestigious National Arts and Humanities Award. This award recognized the country’s best creative youth development programs for using engagement in the arts and the humanities to increase academic achievement, graduation rates, and college enrollment. In November of that year, one of the interns, Meghan McNeal, traveled to Washington, D.C. to accept the award on behalf of her peers from First Lady Michelle Obama.

“When I first heard about the honor, I cried,” said Wayne McNeal, Meghan’s father. “For her to accomplish this on her own, I am just amazed.” Wayne credits ArtMix for helping Meghan develop independence, self-confidence, and interpersonal skills.

The program is still going strong and growing. This summer, ArtMix is piloting an advanced tier to provide more opportunities for youth who have participated in the program for years and who are now over the age of 22. The new Artisan Entrepreneurs program provides mentorship with professional artists, opportunities to further develop individual artistic styles, and a continued sense of community. Meghan McNeal is one of the ten young adults in this new advanced tier.

Led by Compton, this new tier is designed to foster creativity and independence as a life-long journey.

“Whether they end up in independent employment or another setting they enjoy, our hope is that they will find ways to use the skills they cultivated here to lead a creative, productive life,” Compton said.

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Artmix Indiana: Who We Are | “Everybody has something to give.” This video features the Urban Artisans program.