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2021 Mar

Art Folks: Meet Christine Everly

Learn how the CEO of Arts for Learning has helped the organization thrive during the pandemic.

Christine Everly was appointed CEO of Arts for Learning in 2017. Let’s learn more about Chris and why she thinks the arts are crucial in the development of today’s youth.

TFP: Why are the arts important for today’s youth?
CE: The arts are always important, but they’re truly more important than ever, given the isolation and academic challenges kids have faced during the pandemic. Children and teens don’t all learn in the same way, and the arts can connect with non-traditional learners when traditional methods don’t.

Any child is going to learn best when they care about what’s being taught. So that’s our mission for every program we create—engaging and inspiring children through the arts. And through the arts, children can learn skills that are important to their success and their well-being.

TFP: Tell us about your background: where you were raised, went to school, career, family, etc.
CE: I was raised in Philadelphia, the oldest of three children, where there was plenty of love but not much money. I was always driven to exceed academically and went to college at age 16 where I met my husband a couple of months into freshman year. I was one of a handful of women in the undergraduate and graduate business programs at Temple University.

After graduation, I was hired by a local regional bank for the first class of commercial loan management trainees open to women. Thirty-five years ago, after my husband obtained his doctorate in optometry, we moved to Virginia Beach, where he began a small private practice. I continued my career in finance when I joined a local bank that eventually became Bank of America.

In 2017, I retired after 30 years and began what I call my “second act” by becoming CEO of Arts for Learning. I wanted to find work that would bring me joy every day and contribute to our community.

We’re the proud parents of two adult children, a son who’s 29 and a daughter who’s 28. After being part of Arts for Learning and observing firsthand the power of the arts to help students with different learning styles, I wish I’d used the arts much more extensively when our children were younger.

TFP: How did you come to be interested in the arts? What genre is your favorite? Why?
CE: I was shy and introverted growing up, and maybe that’s why I became such an avid reader. My father took me to the public library every week, and I always checked out the maximum number of books. I loved to read about the history of distant lands and other cultures, and I dreamed of traveling.

So as an adult, that’s what I’ve done. My husband and I have traveled extensively in North America, Europe, and Asia, and we always enjoy the arts wherever we are—going to music concerts and dance performances and visiting art museums. I love many different types of art, but if I had to pick a favorite, I’d say painting because my favorite artist is our son who is a gifted painter who ironically dislikes reading for pleasure.

TFP: As the CEO of Arts for Learning, what are your goals for the organization?
CE: To continue to respond to the changing needs of students for arts-in-education programs, and each year to engage artists for more programs that reach more students than the previous year. I want us to be a force of social and racial change in our community, making the arts accessible to all children, supporting artists of color, and offering culturally diverse programs.

TFP: What new programming is available currently? Is it accessible to the public?
CE: We’ve added a number of new artists and digital programs. For instance, our roster now includes a native Egyptian artist with a program that explores Arabic folk music and dance. One of our longtime storytellers has a new program on a brother and sister who were leaders of the Resistance in Hitler’s Germany. And two of our dancers have a fun new interactive program that combines hip hop and tap.

During Black History Month, some of our artists do programs celebrating little known Black historical figures, but we offer those programs year-round, not just in February. Libraries in the area are hosting our virtual programs—Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Williamsburg, and York County. We promote programs that are open to the public through our website and social media, so check out our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts for info about upcoming events. (Facebook www.facebook.com/arts4learningva | Instagram @arts4learningva | Twitter @arts4learningva)

TFP: How has the current pandemic affected Arts for Learning?
CE: For 65 years, we’ve sent professional artists to schools, libraries, and other places like community centers, where they perform and teach students in person. They use dance or music or storytelling or other art forms to teach kids academic concepts, such as math and history and language arts. Kids are exposed to the art form as they learn, often without even realizing that they are learning. Our artists also focus on character development and social-emotional skills, things like perseverance and tolerance and teamwork.

But all those in-person programs came to a stop when schools shut down last March—we had to cancel 350 hours of programming. It was heartbreaking to have to call our artists, knowing what an economic blow it would be to them. I was also very concerned about how long we’d be able to make payroll and pay health insurance benefits for our staff.

Even with all the shock and worry about what might happen, we knew we needed to figure out a way to keep providing services to students and also to create some income for our artists. Since our artists couldn’t appear in person, we made a very quick switch to video performances. We didn’t have any quality recording equipment or a studio, and we didn’t have any special expertise in how to produce video, so it was a real leap of faith.

With just a tiny budget, we turned our offices in Norfolk into a recording studio, and eventually our artists created more than 100 short video segments that we called “Take 10.” There was a great variety of topics as we focused on diversity of cultures and art forms—we had segments on South African dance, crafting your own musical instruments, scat singing, Caribbean steel drums, collage making, alliteration in poetry, you name it, all designed to reach students learning from home.

By June 30th more than 30,000 students and families had watched one of the programs, free of charge. I can’t tell you how proud I am of our staff and artists coming together to find a solution to connect students with the arts. I’m also proud to say our Take 10 efforts were just recognized with Dominion Energy’s ArtStars Award for Eastern Virginia. It’s a big honor that comes with a $10,000 prize, and we’re very excited about it.

Financially, we’ve been able to pay our staff, rent, and utility bills by tapping into CARES-related funding. My training as a banker was helpful in planning how to survive financially and in applying for two PPP loans, which are eligible for forgiveness. By September, we found the money to upgrade our digital equipment, investing in quality light, sound, recording, and editing equipment and hiring new artists with experience in virtual production. Dozens of the full-length programs that our artists used to deliver in person are now available as live or recorded virtual programs. And our program team is exploring new directions with some brand-new programming that wouldn’t have been possible under our old service model—we’re talking original puppetry and music for a new video series called Spread Kindness (Not Germs). So, all in all, I’m thrilled to say that our organization is not just surviving but thriving.

TFP: What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in the arts?
CE: When our son was considering a career in the arts, I told him it was important to follow his heart to be happy and fulfilled but to also recognize the economic reality that many artists work two or three jobs to be able to pay their bills.

TFP: How can parents develop a love of the arts in their children?
CE: By exposing children to all kinds of art and letting them choose whatever art form inspires their creativity and enjoyment. During the pandemic when there aren’t many social options, it’s a great time to work on an art project together or experience a new type of art as a family. Immersing yourself in art is great therapy for the stress we’re all feeling.

TFP: Feel free to add anything else our readers might be interested to learn about you.
CE: When I first joined the organization, I was intimidated being surrounded by talented musicians, dancers, storytellers, painters, etc. because I lack those artistic gifts, and then I realized my job wasn’t to create the art, but to make it possible. Two years into the job, at a Vincent Van Gogh exhibit in Houston, I read a quote from a letter Vincent wrote to his brother in 1888: “. . . The more I think about it the more I feel that there’s nothing more genuinely artistic than to love people.” At that point, I decided I could claim to be an artistic person after all.

 

Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and publisher of Tidewater Family Plus magazine. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com

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