Art equals life for many of the students at Inside Out Community Arts. Directors Varina Bleil (left) and Alison Forbes are hopeful that a National Endowment for
the Arts grant will translate into more students and donors.







One of the most prestigious arts agencies in the nation recently distributed several grants to a variety of nonprofit organizations and a Venice-based theater arts group is one of the proud recipients of its largess.
Inside Out Community Arts, which has been operating in Venice since 1996, received a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) last month.
“It’s a very competitive grant, so it really is an honor to receive it,” Inside Out Community Arts Executive Director of Advancement Alison Forbes told The Argonaut. “There’s a very rigorous process that you have to go through.”
National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman mentioned the Venice non-profit last month after the list of awardees was announced.
“I’m proud to announce these 832 grants to the American public including Inside Out Community Arts,” Landesman said. “These projects offer extraordinary examples of creativity in our country, including the creation of new work, innovative ways of engaging audiences and exemplary education programs.”
The NEA is an independent government agency that offers support and funding for projects exhibiting artistic excellence. Created by Congress in 1965, the agency has beaten back attempts to defund or abolish it by conservative lawmakers and activists. It is the nation’s largest grant awarding agency.
Inside Out Arts won its grant for their School Project, the organization’s signature initiative that serves middle and high school students from much of the Westside.
The School Project is an after-school program providing arts education to underserved middle school youth throughout Los Angeles County. Formerly known as the Neighborhood Project, youths who take part in this initiative work with professional artists trained in youth development to learn multiple art disciplines and the elements of creating a play.
Participants then use what they have learned in workshops with their instructors to create, write and produce their own plays based on themes of importance to them. They then perform their plays in a professional theater.
Practically everyone at the organization pitched in to write the grant and supply the necessary information, which made winning the award a true team effort, according to Forbes.
The grant process is a multi-part application that touches on what type of organization the soliciting non-profit or artistic group is and who they typically serve.
Executive Director of Education Varina Bleil mentioned another component of the application process.
“You actually have to show and prove (student) learning and standards of the arts,” she said. “We sent them videos, curriculum, samples of what our teachers are actually teaching the youth, biographies of the artists who are teaching the youth… there’s a lot of (examination) to see how your students are actually learning.”
Inside Out Arts draws from a variety of middle schools, including John Adams Middle School in Santa Monica and Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista.
Bleil thinks potential donors will be impressed when they learn that the theater arts group has won a grant from a national agency that is held in very high esteem in the art world.
“When I am talking to board members, partners in what we’re doing and potential donors, I tend to always say that we’re a recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts,” she said. “This really speaks to our standard of programs and in one simple sentence it allows us to convey that we have a very high standard of programming here.”
The organization was located on Lincoln Boulevard until last year but now has its office on Venice Boulevard, not far from trendy Abbot Kinney Boulevard. The former building had a stage, which allowed them to put on plays and hold workshops.
Since they moved to the new location, Inside Out Arts is receiving assistance with venues where their students can perform from other local non-profits and some local facilities.
Inside Out Arts works with middle school children largely because they are at an age where they can be very impressionable, and academic studies have shown that when children drop out of high school their descent begins in middle school.
“That age is so critical where students are starting to be confronted with different challenges and they’re making important decisions about how they’re going to handle certain things,” Forbes noted. “So we think it’s a great age for us to get in there and help them make more positive choices.”
The theater arts group also has a high school initiative and an alumni mentoring program, where “graduates” of the School Project assist in training younger students after their instruction from Inside Out artist leaders.
“In a way they’re not only receiving services, they’re also giving back,” Forbes said.
The students in the School Project tackle subject matter that at one time might have been considered to be “adult themes” but increasingly have become a part of their young lives, directly or indirectly.
In the past, they have presented plays that touch on gender and sexual orientation bias, racial profiling, drug and alcohol addition, bullying and teen pregnancy, to name a few.
“These are things that they are dealing with already,” Forbes said. “That’s why we think this program is so important. We’re giving them an opportunity to work these things out in a safe, nurturing environment.”
During the spring and summer months this year, several youths took part in the School Project, which entailed painting the side of a building at the corner of Ocean Park Boulevard and Main Street in Santa Monica, site of the former iconic Ocean Park Pier mural, which had been defaced over the years with graffiti and several other images that were not part of the original artwork.
Prior to working on the mural, the teens researched the rich history of Ocean Park, which at the turn of last century was a haven for well-to-do Angelenos who wanted to enjoy “summer” at the beach. They also met with members of the Chumash Native American tribe, which was prevalent in the area several centuries ago.
More than 20 teens from Santa Monica, Venice and Mar Vista participated in the mural project.
Next year, the theater arts group will take on another mural project.
“We want to give them something different and see how they adapt to it,” Bleil explained. “It’s good to give the students something different once in a while.”
Inside Out Arts was chosen for its grant from among 1,509 applicants.