Twenty-seven years ago, Jana Napoli, a professional artist, started a program at L.E. Rabouin Vocational High School to give young talent the capacity to create artwork that would reach out to the business community.
“The first show was a sellout,” she recalled. YAYA, an acronym for Young Artists/Young Aspirations, became the first young, African-American design studio in America, designing Swatch watch bands and chair slipcovers for the United Nations General Assembly and other high-profile projects.
Napoli’s dream for YAYA is now complete with the recent opening of a new, $1.4 million, 6,000-square-foot building at 3322 LaSalle St. in the heart of Central City. The airy, functionally designed center will provide free after-school art instruction to students ages 13 to 25, plus make available art classes for the general public at a nominal fee. It also will welcome senior citizens from the nearby Flint Goodridge Apartments on Louisiana Avenue.
“YAYA was a forerunner in teaching entrepreneurship,” Scott Hutcheson, the mayor’s adviser on cultural economy, said at the grand opening ceremony. “Only in New Orleans do you see a facility like this in a residential neighborhood.”
Since 1998, YAYA has served 8,500 children and created arts curricula for 28 schools and community partners. In recent years, the programs had been divided between two locations but now will be consolidated under one roof.
“This is the first building designed specifically for their needs,” said James Landis, who managed the center’s construction.
“This gives us a place to really thrive,” said Babs Johnson, a longtime YAYA board member.
The prefabricated, corrugated aluminum building designed by architect Byron Mouton includes a ceramic and glass studio, woodworking shop, print shop, multimedia painting and crafts studio, woodworking studio, eco-arts garden, guild studio and gallery. Another $50,000 needs to be raised to complete the outdoor extension.
“A building is just a tool,” said Gene Meneray, YAYA’s newly appointed chief executive officer. “We want to give the building to the artists and let them make something beautiful.”
The center lies within walking distance of 10 schools and along major bus routes. Children can attend regularly scheduled art classes, but the concept is “built around the idea of dropping in,” Meneray said. Not long ago, everyone was talking about a “third place.” YAYA aims to be artists’ third place, after home and school, where they can go to socialize.
Rontherin Ratliff started going to YAYA in 1993 as a student at Charles J. Colton School and years later became YAYA’s artistic director. Over and over again, he saw kids “blossom” at YAYA, which became their “second home.” Being accepted for who you are, without judgment, is so important to a young person, he said.
“YAYA has always been a strong social environment with a creative component and having that competitive challenge,” Ratliff said.
The glass studio is an integral aspect of YAYA, which allows kids to take risks and learn teamwork, said Charity Poskitt, glass studio co-manager. “It is a very immediate process that demands that you be present. If you don’t pay attention, you can lose your piece or get a burn,” Poskitt said.
“For people that have a kinetic drive, glass is a full-body experience, like sports. It is thrilling,” she said.
YAYA’s programming officially begins in September, along with Friday night glass-blowing demonstrations.
“The city of New Orleans owes a great debt to YAYA for investing in the entrepreneurial spirit. There are very few institutions investing in children day in and day out,” City Councilman Jason Williams said.