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Lehman College

Bronx Arts Education: A History

A look back into the history of arts education in The Bronx

The work of the Bronx Arts Network is intended to fill a void created by a lack of consistent attention to arts education in urban public schools. It comes from a deeply held belief that a relationship with the arts, whether as an artist or as a deep appreciator of works of art, elevates the mind and the spirit. As Wynton Marsalis said in his address to Congress in 2009, “There is no greater task that confronts our nation in this time than coming to grips with who we are from an artistic standpoint.”

As we embark upon this new endeavor, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. As early as 1959, art teacher Salvatore Gulla and drama teacher Fredric Halaman Daris met at IS 139 on Brook Avenue and founded the South Bronx Community Action Theatre, an organization dedicated to providing workshops and classes in theatre, dance, music, and the visual arts for the youth of the South Bronx. Here is an excerpt from their 1967 booklet entitled A Day in the Life. It speaks to the issues of that volatile time period, and its sentiments resonate today:

People must find meaning in their lives, purposeful and fruitful activity is the best answer we can find for individual and group expression. Young people so engaged have no need to riot, rather they can seek out more positive means of expression. We have been preaching this gospel to all who would listen and we repeat it now for all to hear. We will continue to do so till all concerned understand the seriousness of our purpose. This is not a simple plea for our program. It is rather a call for more and more meaningful programs in all areas of human expression. Programs which can grow and are designed to make living a creative expression for all who would have it so. Our only hope is to make this possible to larger and larger numbers. We want to take on all comers and create a climate for living. No more quickie programs. Let’s get some meaningful well thought out projects with growth and development built in. Let’s make long range planning with fruitful experience an every day experience. The Great Society cannot be built piecemeal with lip service. We must seek out and demonstrate dedication to the good life. Work begets work. Hope begets hope. Indifference has no place in our society.

The South Bronx Community Action Theatre continued its work well into the 1990s. In those years, thousands of students from IS 139 and other schools in the community took classes in the performing and visual arts and participated in music, theatre and dance performances, and art exhibitions. Young people were immersed in such disparate art forms as Shakespeare plays, African and Flamenco dance, painting, sculpture, film, and video. An incident of vandalism that damaged an entire wing of the school building inspired Mr. Gulla to turn that wing into Egypt in the South Bronx, working with his middle school students to create and display life-sized replicas of objects from King Tut’s tomb. The students not only created the work, they did extensive historical research and became docents, guiding visitors through the exhibit.

"A big, beautiful American success!"

A brief section of a conversation between two arts educators, Salvatore Gulla and Amanda Gulla, exploring the relationship between arts education and academic achievement.

Listen to the Audio Clip

We are in a new era, but the need for the civilizing and inspiring effects of art education are as great as ever. The Bronx Arts Network’s primary purpose is to support teachers in The Bronx in finding the resources they need to help provide a meaningful arts education that will help young people develop a sense of self, a sense of others, and a sense of history. The arts have the power to change the lives of those who come to really understand and appreciate them.