On Aug 8. and 9., the bustling main atrium at the Barclays Center was filled with more than 100 artworks created by New York City middle and high school students in an exhibition titled “The Basquiat Project: Looking Back, Moving Forward 2022.”
Students created the pieces as part of a Basquiat-inspired arts curriculum program developed in partnership with the Brooklyn Nets, the New York City Department of Education and the Fund for Public Schools, and funded by the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation’s Social Justice Fund.
“In talking to the students, you’ll hear words like,‘I found a way to express myself’ or you’ll hear, ‘I didn’t know that I had this talent in me,’” said Gregg Bishop, executive director of the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation’s Social Justice Fund. “So to us, that speaks to a number of things, including, why art is so important to social justice and mental health, because it’s like therapy.”
Over 4,000 New York City students have participated in the program since it was developed in 2021. Available to all NYC art teachers as an opt-in curriculum, the Basquiat education program has allowed students to discover their identity through art, even if they do not think of themselves as artists.
“We wanted Basquiat to be someone that the kids can relate to,” said Joy Pace, a borough arts director at the DOE. “He’s from Brooklyn, he was young, he wasn’t formally trained as an artist. There was an entryway for all the students to get into this because they don’t necessarily have to be an artist of any kind. We asked the kids to use found objects because they were also at home. Basquiat used whatever he could. He had doorways, he used t-shirts. So we asked the kids to be creative in their thinking about the use of materials.”
As much as the Basquiat program has been enjoyed by the students, the program has similarly been welcomed by teachers across the city, who have struggled to keep up with all of the pandemic-induced changes in schools.
“Our teachers had a rough time coming back to the classroom, because there was a lot of stop and go,” said Pace. “Our teachers were just as disjointed, physically and mentally. Because of our work with the Nets, we were able to provide a unit that’s already been created, to make revisions as [they] see fit.”
Most Brooklynites associate the Barclays Center with big-ticket events like basketball games or concerts, but The Basquiat Project is part of an effort to connect with the community by making the arena a place for New Yorkers to experience culture.
“Clara has been really focused on turning the arena into a cultural destination, ” Bishop said. “So it’s not just a game, it’s not just a concert, but you’re seeing art. You’re coming for a job fair. You’re coming for a procurement fair. Or, you’re coming to attend a free concert in the Plaza that speaks to different cultures.”