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Phoebe Legere colors kids’ lives with art and music through her foundation

BY BEN TOGUT | On July 16 and 17, the Foundation for New American Art held its Festival of Possibilities at The Clemente Cultural and Educational Center.

A nonprofit organization founded by multidisciplinary artist Phoebe Legere, the foundation provides free music and art classes to children in public schools, at which budgets for such programs are often lacking.

The event was made possible through a Challenge America grant given to the F.N.A.A. by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Phoebe Legere is a multidisciplinary artist. (Courtesy the artist)

The festival began on Saturday night with performances by Mongolian Throat Singer Tamir Hargana, Colombian musician Maria Raquel and Salieu Suso, an artist from the African “griot” tradition who sings and plays the 21-string kora. On Sunday, the foundation held a series of workshops for children and adults in art, dance, theater, painting and puppetry, allowing community members to have rich conversations and to celebrate their heritage.

A young festivalgoer works on “The Mural of the People.” (Courtesy Phoebe Legere)

“We have no words to express our gratitude to the people who helped us and fortified our resolve on our beautiful journey: Fourteen years of service as a grassroots nonprofit charity organization!” exclaimed Legere, the president of F.N.A.A. “Now the National Endowment for the Arts joins us as a partner. Gracias a todos nuestros amigos y vecinos.”

“The Mural of the People,” created collectively by children attending the recent Festival of Possibility. (Courtesy Phoebe Legere)

Legere was inspired to start the Foundation for New American Art after meeting children who came to the New York Underground Museum, a space Legere curated to feature the art of women, people with disabilities and other groups that had been shut out by the art world.

“These parents would come on a Saturday or Sunday bringing their children,” Legere told The Village Sun. “As I talked to these parents, I began to learn that the children had no access to culture. What I found out from these parents was that there was a need in the neighborhood for cultural equity.”

The Lower East Side Children’s Chorus sing “The Neighborhood Bop,” by The Ramones. Phoebe Legere, the conductor and music director, is on guitar, at left. (Courtesy Phoebe Legere)

The financial crisis of 2008 only made matters worse, forcing 80 percent of public schools to slash their budgets for art and music curricula. On a mission to bridge this cultural gap, Legere founded F.N.A.A. in 2008. Legere has been teaching free art and music classes to public school children on the Lower East Side ever since, seeking to foster a new generation of committed artists. F.N.A.A.’s programs include “Paintbrushes Not Guns,” which provides free art training for “the visionary artists of tomorrow,” “Music Teachers Without Borders,” in which children can take private lessons on Zoom, and “The Color Wheel,” the foundation’s free, streaming children’s educational and art show.

A multicultural mix of musical performers at the Festival of Possibilities’ first night, from left, Phoebe Legere, the emcee and president of the Foundation for New American Art (Abenaki Algonquin), Salieu Suso (Gambia), Maria Raquel (Colombia) and Tamir Hargana (Inner Mongolia)
At the Festival of Possibilities concert, Tamir Hargana and Phoebe Legere, at left, take questions from the students at the Brooklyn Music School Mentors Program. (Photo by Junyan Ivan Chen)

“I’m not just giving them music,” Legere emphasized. “I’m giving them confidence, self-esteem. So many of our children are being raised by a brother, or they’re in shelters, or they’re being raised by a grandparent. I know from experience that if your parents don’t love you, it follows you through life, because that’s confidence, that’s self-esteem.”

Having experienced adversity in her own childhood, Legere feels she’s in a unique position to help her students find confidence and affirmation through art.

Miguel Angel Bravo adds inspired strokes to “The Mural of the People.” (Courtesy Phoebe Legere)

“I play seven instruments and look at how I paint,” Legere said. “That’s not to say I’m so great. But you got to have love. And you could get it from colors. I can draw a picture of a lady who loves me. I can draw a picture of two people — there’s love. See how I take the paint and make it into love.”

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