Scituate native Matt D’Arrigo came up with the idea for ARTS: A Reason To Survive when he was just 19-years-old, a concept that bubbled to the surface of his imagination while he was listening to music and drawing in the bedroom of his Scituate home.
The practice was a type of therapy for him to deal with both his mother and sister’s cancer diagnoses. Suddenly he realized that art was helping him through it all.
“The whole thing came to me in half an hour, this is what I want to do with my life. If [art as therapy] works for me, it’ll work for other kids,” D’Arrigo said in a phone interview from California.
Twenty years later, the concept of providing art outreach to kids that need it most has turned into a tangible dream, one that has been in the spotlight as of late with the Oscar win for "Inocente", a documentary film following a teenage artist who has learned perseverance through the California-based arts program.
The film, available on iTunes, documents the film’s 15-year-old namesake as she struggles through homelessness, and recounts the girl’s traumatic life.
Alongside her struggles is a story of hope, as Inocente finds passion and purpose in drawing and the arts.
The story is quickly becoming the poster child for why arts education is a necessity in schools, and arts activists from around the globe have been sending in positive feedback to D’Arrigo thanking the program for its work.
With such praise, it’s almost easy to forget the tribulations of first starting out in 2001, which D’Arrigo, who attended St. Paul’s Elementary School in Hingham, recounts with nostalgia.
A number of times he almost gave up, D’Arrigo said, and two years in to founding the company, D’Arrigo was looking for couch change to buy food.
The group was mainly just providing outreach work to area hospitals and shelters, and D’Arrigo felt like giving up.
Yet his father, Joe, championed him to keep going, and soon the group had acquired a grant to sustain it awhile longer.
By 2007 ARTS was thriving, and had opened a 7,000 square foot arts center, complete with a gallery, music department, media arts department, visual arts department, dance department and more.
“Basically what we do is we use the arts to create positive change and transformation in youth facing adversity,” D’Arrigo said.
Yet the program has blossomed into more than just a learning space. D’Arrigo said the program is part therapeutic, part arts education, and part college and career prep – a “one stop shop” D’Arrigo said.
It was there that filmmakers contacted D’Arrigo out of the blue looking for a subject of a documentary, one that would show a young girl using art to build resiliency.
“We have a number [of young girls] in the program, and after talking more and more, Inocente popped into mind. Her story and her art,” D’Arrigo said. “She was ready to tell her story. It’s a huge step for a teenager to go so public with their pain and background, and not all our kids were at that point…but after talking with her, she was.”
Filmmakers met with the teen without cameras, and started filming a week later.
“We knew the filmmakers were good. The last film was up for an Oscar as well,” D’Arrigo said. “We knew it wasn’t just a bunch of college kids doing a documentary. They were legit. But we didn’t know how it would play out and we had low expectations.”
The film even ran out of money at one point and was shelved for a time. Once finished, film festivals also wouldn’t air the movie, as the 40-minute film was too long for the 30-minute time slots.
Finally, a film festival in Toronto picked it up. Before long, the movie had received an Oscar nomination, and on February 24, Inocente was brought up on stage along with the moviemakers to accept an Oscar award.
“It was unbelievable. We’re very proud of her and the organization,” D’Arrigo said.
The sudden fame and recognition the Oscar win has brought has been a whirlwind for D’Arrigo, who also moved the arts center in December to a new 20,000 square foot space in one of the poorest cities in San Diego County.
“This past week has been crazy,” D’Arrigo said. “[We’re] trying to keep up with it all. It’s great. But we’re still a small organization, we’ve been around for 12 years, but we’re under $1 million, we’ve only got a handful of staff, but we do really amazing work. What we’re trying to do now is raise more money to continue do the work we do but hire the staff and artists we need to meet the demand and be financially strong and viable so we can be here.”
The notoriety has many other programs from around the country reaching out as well, wanting to know how to start similar programs in their areas.
“Growth for us looks like training and consulting others to do the work we do,” D’Arrigo said. “We don’t see us having arts chapters over the world, but if we can take our knowledge…and train others, that’s how we see having a greater impact outside our own walls.”
For more information about ARTS: A Reason To Survive, click here.