University City: Group Improves Students’ Accessibility to the Arts

Program coordinator Lillian Pontius-Goldenblatt held a sign for the University city Arts League that once stood in its backyard garden.]

Funding for arts programs has been nearly nonexistent in most Philadelphia schools for the past few years. However, the University City Arts League has come to the rescue for residents of its neighborhood.

The nonprofit organization has stepped up to give students and adults access to affordable arts classes that would otherwise be unavailable. The Arts League offers classes such as printmaking, dance and digital design. Pottery has been the most popular class; it attracts an overwhelming number of students seeking to get their hands dirty and make objects out of clay.

Program coordinator Lillian Pontius-Goldblatt held a sign for the University City Arts League that once stood in its backyard garden.

Across the street from Penn Alexander School, the Arts League’s yellow- and-purple bay windows match the banister on its front porch. The building visually stands out among the old Victorian-style row homes on the block. Since its conception in 1967, the University City Arts League has been a haven for the arts, encouraging people of all ages to explore experiences like ballet, pottery and creative writing classes.

“The founders of the Arts League wanted a place to come together and take classes in the arts,” Executive Director Noreen Shanfelter said. “Many of them were artists themselves and wanted a place to share their art with the community as well.”

When the University City Arts League first opened its doors in the late sixties, its student body was comprised mostly of adults, who would come to attend lecture-style sessions on politics, the sciences and the arts. The community has changed in demographics since then and the Arts League now attracts a much younger audience, introduced by the establishment of the Penn Alexander School. This has transformed the Arts League into a successful after-school program for children in the neighborhood, with roughly 80 percent of students coming from Penn Alexander.

A students drew a horse in the after-school drawing and painting class.

“Parents today need a place for their kids to be after school. The added benefit we offer is that this isn’t just any after school program, it’s an arts program,” Shanfelter said. “Parents have been telling us that their kids want to be here because their friends are here too.”

Over time, the Arts League has had countless artists, dancers and writers pass through the gallery and the classrooms, enriching both young and old minds. The faculty satisfy a certain need in the community, especially in the after-school programs.

“The potential cuts in arts programming across the board in public schools means people are looking to places like us to provide some of the things they think that their kids may be missing in school,” Shanfelter said.

Budget cuts have greatly affected Philadelphia’s school district. Funding for arts classes and programs have taken a serious blow, which has many parents worried about their children’s access to a form of expressive education. In light of these events, University City Arts League’s presence has become crucial.

“I don’t think we are the answer to the budget cuts in public schools, but we could be part of it,” Shanfelter said. “In the University City neighborhood, I think that we are the most important cog in that wheel that has yet begun to roll.”

Pottery has been the University City Arts League's most popular class.

The University City Arts League recognized the gaps that existed in the neighborhood. Artistic expression in the community has found a home there and the Arts League provided resources that the area did not have before. All under one roof, the arts have been given life by members of the University City community.

“I feel that people spend a lot of time going from their job to their home and watching TV and just trying to keep it going. But it’s also really important to reflect on your experiences and art is a fantastic way to do that,” program director Lillian Pontius-Goldblatt said. “Especially with children, it is important to start early to introduce reflection and tools to interpret what’s going on around them as they grow up.”

Members of the community who have found themselves enchanted by the long-standing presence of the University City Arts League could see the Arts League grow in the near future. The building is bustling with students and the classes fill up quickly, and Shanfelter and Pontius-Goldblatt want to provide more services to more students. They are currently looking into expanding into neighboring Powelton Village, an underserved arts community, and are open to collaborating with other organizations.

There is a cyclical nature intertwined between the University City Arts League and its students. Throughout the Arts League’s history, multiple generations have been given the opportunity to express themselves through the arts. Parents who took classes at the Arts League during their childhood now pick up their children there after school.

Friendships have been formed, a strong community mentality has been developed and loyalty to the arts has been strengthened through the University City Arts League’s work. Generation by generation, the motivation to provide a community outlet for the arts has allowed the University City Arts League to continue its work.


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