TRENDER: New Urban Arts Director of Programs Emily Ustach

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


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Emily Ustach loves sharing her love of the arts with RI's youth.

Who are the Rhode Islanders leading in arts, fashion, food, and style? They're Trenders, and GoLocalProv offers glimpses of the people you most want to know on the scene. Today's Trender is Emily Ustach, New Urban Arts’ new Director of Programs. Emily sat down with GoLocal to talk about her new role and why she and New Urban Arts are trendsetters. New Urban Arts, a community art studio in Providence, provides art education and opportunities to encourage RI youth to develop their creativity and artistic skills.

You have worked with New Urban Arts since 2007 and have taken on many roles, including Artist Mentor and Student Program Coordinator. How does it feel to be the Program Director now?

I’m excited to get to know New Urban Arts in a new way. I have been very lucky to have seen the organization grow under the leadership of Sarah Meyer, the former Director of Programs. She, along with others, expanded the number of students attending, deepened summer engagement, and gained national recognition for the organization’s programs. Those are huge shoes to fill, but I’m excited to join a growing team and to have the opportunity to work here every day.

I feel very lucky. Having been an artist mentor helps me connect with the experience of mentoring at New Urban Arts. Our mentors give so much of their time, energy and heart, it’s a unique experience and not as easy as it looks, so it’s helpful knowing what they are going through and also what they can get out of the experience.

As director, what are your plans for the program going forward?

New Urban Arts’ programs are award winning, and my first priority is to really understand and get to know them. I am meeting with a lot of people who have been involved in our school year and summer programs to see what they like and what we could improve.

New Urban Arts has a unique model of empowering students to choose the artist mentors they want to work with for the year. Students are involved in the selection process, from reading applications to conducting interviews. This changes the whole dynamic of the space – it’s less, “I have something to teach you”, and more “I want to learn from you”. I am fascinated by how this simple power shift changes how we learn from each other in the space. I am thinking about opportunities where we can empower students in similar ways at other times in the studio.

What do you think about the RI art scene in general?

I moved to Rhode Island nine years ago to go to graduate school at RISD, specifically to study community-based arts education. It has been the community of artist and of arts organizations in Providence that has kept me fascinated and enthralled with this city and state. There is such a wealth of youth-based community arts organizations to learn and grow from that are anchors in the city of Providence.

I feel so fortunate to work at New Urban Arts alongside these other organizations and be part of what makes Providence such a unique and exciting place to live.

How important is it to introduce RI youth to art? What impact do you think New Urban Arts has on their lives?

That is a really big question. I think that the arts are a vehicle for youth to express themselves, reflect on their world, and to try on different personalities as they are learning and developing who they are.

I think having a safe space where young people can try things, take risks, ask big and hard questions of themselves and each other and do so alongside other artists who are also taking risks and asking questions is very important. It’s critical. I’m sure New Urban Arts has impacts well beyond what we can measure.

Ultimately, our goal is to fulfill our mission to empower young people as artists and leaders who sustain a creative practice throughout their lives. It’s a long reaching mission, one that we are just starting to see a glimpse of in our 16th year.

What has been your most rewarding experience/moment working at New Urban Arts?

When I was a mentor, I worked closely with a group of young women who were into making comics, and wanted to add color into their work – my mentoring group was in watercolor.

There was one student who was a freshman and would drop in and out of my group, but she never really finished any projects. She would just doodle and talk with the other students. After my mentoring year, I would see her around occasionally at events and things, and then in her senior year, she showed me some watercolor pictures that blew me away. She said she always had a set of watercolors in her bag just in case.

I had no idea she was so affected by our group. It shows you never know how or in what way you might impact people.

She ended up getting a large scholarship to study art at Salem College, the school I went to for my undergraduate degree. So she is now learning from the professors I learned from, which is nice and not anything I could have predicted.

You call yourself an amateur artist. What sorts of medium do you enjoy working with?

Lately, I have been spending more time in the kitchen studio rather than the art studio, playing around with recipes. I’m also working on knitting many, many squares to make a blanket. My background is in painting, and I would like to do more of that, but I have to make the time.

Professionally, I think that facilitating conversations among people is a creative practice. Facilitating how people can learn from each other and how they can learn from the experiences they are going through is something I’m very interested in, and is definitely a craft I’m in the process of honing.

What should Rhode Islanders look out for in the future from New Urban Arts?

There are a lot of new faces at New Urban Arts right now. We are sitting in ideas and possibilities. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we support students who don’t go to college after high school. There is very little information out there for students who don’t or can’t take that route.

We are thinking about hosting a Not-College Fair, which would showcase alternative options to college for high school students, such as AmeriCorps Programs, gap year programs, alternative experiences, etc.

Most of all though, Rhode Islanders should look out for our students. They will (and are) doing great things.

How should people looking to support the program get involved?

Come visit us! We had a show opening of our current Artist Mentor’s work on December 6, and this weekend from 10-4pm we are hosting the 3rd Annual Cardboard Pancakes, a holiday craft sale featuring current and former artist mentors and student work.

If people are interested in mentoring, they can apply at the end of summer. Applications and more information are available on our website,!

We are a non-profit youth arts studio and rely on the kindness and generosity of our supporters to keep our programs running.


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