South Philadelphia: Art Sanctuary Offers More Than Paintings

Valerie Gay accepted the passing of the baton

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African-American artists across Philadelphia have been discovered, united and transformed by the hands-on activity taken by the Art Sanctuary since 1998. Located at 628 S. 16th St., this organization has prided itself as being a place where communities can use art as a sanctuary.

“It gave me confidence,” said Tina Smith-Brown, a board member at the Art Sanctuary.

Brown has been involved with the organization for eight years and credited its support for helping her write and launch her book Fish and Grits. She started off as a volunteer, but for the past six years, she has been on the board of directors. “It is a great non-profit because it reaches out to other parts of the city,” Brown said.

Executive Director Valerie Gay said the Art Sanctuary has transformed not only artists' lives but also local residents.
Executive Director Valerie Gay said the Art Sanctuary has transformed not only artists’ lives but also local residents.

Executive Director Valerie Gay said the Art Sanctuary offers many programs to people around the city that “all [fall] across the spectrum of the arts.” Gay, who is also an opera singer, became the organization’s second executive director after its founder, Lorene Cary, stepped down in November. Since then, Gay has been helping continue as well as create programs and events for the organization.

The literacy programs offered act as tools for children and adults who are not exposed to it in their lives. Gay said participants read and draw for enjoyment but also learn how to write. These programs also feature a performing arts section as well as a visual art gallery.

Gay said she hopes to expand the Art Sanctuary’s visual arts practice. However, its focus will remain on art across the entire spectrum and not just paint and a canvas.

Unlike most art galleries, the Art Sanctuary uses “the power of black art as a tool to transform individuals and unite communities” rather than just housing artwork from featured artists.

“What we do is we take excellent artists and arts and go into under resourced communities,” she said, “and while we’re there we find an artist in those communities and we bring them back out, if you will. So we serve as a liaison to basically two worlds.”

When Brown started out writing for the Art Sanctuary, she said it came naturally to her and she volunteered her skills.

“I started off writing blogs for them on their site. It was interesting because there were so many different things,” Brown said.

Valerie Gay accepted the passing of the baton
In November, Valerie Gay became the Art Sanctuary’s executive director after accepting an African baton from founder Lorene Cary. Photo by Lisa Wilk.

She said writing for the organization has changed her life. She was able to promote her book and meet authors she would have never had the chance to meet.

Brown also attended the Black Writers Conference for the Art Sanctuary where she participated in and ran different workshops. She sold her book there but also performed a live reading of it.

In addition to the literacy programs and the Black Writers Conference, the organization is now offering a new Hip-Opera program.

“Kids in high school get to study the opera and hip hop and it’s going to end up in a world premier in the end of 2014 with the Philadelphia Opera Company with a professional composer and librettos and the opera company’s work will be based on what they are doing with our students,” Gay said.

The Art Sanctuary has also tailored programs for young children. On the first Friday of each month, the organization now brings in a guest speaker who runs a children book reading. The reading gives local children and their parents a chance to not only unite and make friends but also to see what the Art Sanctuary is all about.

Diane Johnson interacted with the kids during the reading.
Diane Johnson interacted with the kids during the March 1 Storytelling Circle for Children.

Diane Johnson was the guest reader a recent reading and she explained the book readings are not just about reading and turning pages. “I’m here to tell stories to the children, sing some songs, and we’re going to have some fun,” she said. “I brought a surprise, I brought some puppets.”

Johnson said the children are all very different and bringing them together is what the reading is supposed to accomplish. “Some children are very attentive, they sit and they listen,” she said. “Other children will ask you questions right in the midst of a story, but they enjoy it.”

Johnson admitted she does not mind having a rambunctious group because it tends to help the reading become more fun. “I like to engage them, so I like them being noisy. That enhances me and makes me want to do more with them,” she said.

The Art Sanctuary hosts multiple events throughout the month at its gallery and in other locations across the city. Anyone is welcomed to come participate in these events, but some of them may have a small fee like Wednesday night Yeye Yoga with Jazmyn.

For more information about the Art Sanctuary and its events, visit its website at

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