“When you give a child a camera, you give a child a voice” is the motto of Venice Arts. “The notion that by giving a child a camera, it can certainly be another creative tool, but for us it is photography and digital media, you give them power through the ability to describe their life,” says Venice Arts executive director Lynn Warshafsky.
This type of photography, known as participant-produced photography, was pioneered by Venice Arts creative director Jim Hubbard in the late 1980s, when he gave homeless youths in Washington, D.C. cameras to document their own life stories.
The result was “Shooting Back,” from which images were used to give the homeless a voice for their despair and to prompt lawmakers to create legislation to help them.
A documentary photographer and photojournalist for more than 40 years, Jim has received over 100 photography awards and three Pulitzer Prize nominations.
His latest award came in 2007, when he was the first photographer to receive the Lewis Hines Award, given to businesses and individuals in the public eye who have made a positive impact on the welfare of the nation’s children and youths.
According to Lynn, approximately 80 percent of nonprofit organizations fail within two years. So, there should be special recognition that Venice Arts has been in existence for 15 years.
Jim gives credit to Lynn for being a tireless worker.
“Without her efforts it wouldn’t continue and it never would have happened,” he says. “She is challenged by making something, which is a good cause, succeed. She is inexhaustibly committed to Venice Arts.”
Lynn gives credit to Jim for his undeniable talent and passion.
“He has an intensity and energy when something strikes him or he is passionate about,” she says. “He is good at initiating an idea and setting it on its way. There are some people who have great ideas but don’t know how to implement them.”
Both Lynn and Jim share a vision of “the big picture” that is put into practice through a three year strategic plan.
“It’s not a blueprint, because with a blueprint you really need to build according to plan or your house is going to crumble,” says Lynn. “If you’re a creative or innovative organization, you’re always trying to strike a balance between how you move toward a particular vision and how you respond to opportunities and changes in the environment. It’s important to articulate where we are hoping to go.”
As a consultant to nonprofit organizations, Lynn looks for methods to help and “improve upon,” not only Venice Arts, but other organizations. One way this is done is through the evaluation of Venice Arts mentoring program, which is a unique feature of what the organization does.
“We are interested in the impact of our programs beyond the arts world, which obviously is central and critical,” says Lynn. “We also get a sense of community that is created at Venice Arts between kids and their mentors and staff. Our hope is that the evaluation not only helps our organization, which it has, but will be a contribution to the field, particularly to those of us who run arts organizations.”
Although there is a lot of research and proof that supports the benefit of the arts to children, arts classes are the first to go when there are school district budget cuts.
“We always have to make a case of value for what we do,” says Lynn. “The arts and creativity to human beings’ lives, and to children’s lives and development, is so important.”
Venice Arts gives children the opportunity to be creative. “People ask how we know this is effective on the kids,” says Jim, and his answer is, “Just look at them while they’re doing it. They’re as happy as can be.”
Venice Arts has maintained a strong support base. Lynn acknowledges that “it has been a lot of hard work.” Even after 15 years she is still surprised about how many people are not familiar with their programs.
“Word spreads and people respond to what we do,” she says.
Most of the participants stay for a long time. One 17-year-old who was recently hired as an intern started when she was four.
“People hear about that and see that for the kids who are connected to our programs, there is a real effect,” she adds.
Liliana Cruz, whose daughter has become accomplished through the photography program, is a fan of Venice Arts.
“Venice Arts is the best kept secret in Venice,” she says. “It provides an incredible service for the community and for low-income children especially. When I go to their art shows I’m wowed by what’s produced by even the youngest children. I’m amazed to see that children don’t have limits on their ability to learn because of age. They just do it.”
When asked how other non-profit organizations can be successful, Lynn quickly replied that it is most important to be driven by vision and mission and not by money.
“Opportunities have become available, but we consider if it fits in with what we want to do or if we have the capacity to do it,” says Lynn. “I’m driven more by [considering whether] it’s a good thing for our community and the kids we work with, or for the building of our organization rather than just being money to chase.”
Lynn also acknowledges being able to create an environment of innovation and her amazing staff.
“I think everyone feels that there are places for them to contribute and be creative and be able to grow in their job,” she adds. “It’s a benefit to them as individuals and also a benefit to the organization.”
Although Venice Arts remains Venice-based, its commitment and outreach to low-income families have expanded to Mar Vista Gardens, the Pico neighborhood, the downtown garment district and the San Gabriel Valley.
Readers can help Venice Arts celebrate its 15th anniversary by attending a special celebration Saturday, October 25th.
Information on the event, Barbara Baumann, (310) 821-1857 or firstname.lastname@example.org/ or www.venice-arts.org/.