Tisches’ grant is masterstroke for high school art program


By Isabel Wilkinson

East Side Community High School’s auditorium buzzed with excitement early Wednesday evening during a gallery opening. Before the evening was over, the energy and emotions would explode into sheer euphoria.

The E. 12th St. high school’s Loisaida Jill Herman Art Gallery opened in 2004 in a former basement rec room. The art shows — curated by students and at which they sell their work — are a routine part of the school’s unique art curriculum.

While East Side is not a dedicated arts school per se, it takes the study of art seriously, with students required to attend at least one studio art class per year, choosing among visual fine art, digital art, dance, theater and more.

Many of the students at last Wednesday’s opening had been looking forward to an upcoming trip to Europe, for which they had been raising money since the school year began. But the fundraising had proven far harder than expected.

Little did they know, however, that they were in for a big surprise: An announcement that Ann Rubenstein Tisch and her husband, Andrew Tisch, had given a $20,000 gift that will finance the school’s art program and help send the students to the Continent this spring. It is the largest private gift the school has ever received.

“We’re going! Oh my God! It’s official!” said Connie Murray, 16, when she heard the news. “I honestly thought we weren’t going to get there.” Parents, faculty and students screamed and hugged.

Jessie Peterson, a devoted class mother who has helped the children raise money for the trip, was especially moved by the announcement.

“I can’t believe it,” she said, wiping away tears. “These kids really deserve it.”

Before the gift made the trip possible, the students were struggling to raise money. They were each asked to fulfill hours of volunteering at the school in order to fund the trip. This included selling student art at an “Art-a-thon” in Washington Square Park, in which the school and the students split the proceeds.

“Through the equitable division of funds, they are building community and blossoming into a cohesive group,” said art teacher Leigh Klonsky of the fundraising system.

But the students had only raised $13,000 by November, just half their goal. Meanwhile, their college guidance counselor, Carmen Peña — who is part of the CollegeBound program, which places top counselors in underresourced schools — played a key role. She helped connect the school with education philanthropist and CollegeBound founder Ann Rubenstein Tisch.

Mrs. Tisch visited East Side Community High School this fall, and according to teachers, was impressed by the art program and the quality of student artwork. She later pledged the money to support the growing arts program and fund the trip to Europe.

During last week’s gallery opening, Desiree Borrero, an art teacher who will be leading the trip, stood on a box and asked for everyone’s attention.

“I have a special announcement to make,” she said to the large group of students filling the art gallery. “Our hard work has paid off.” Borrero’s eyes filled with tears and her voice began to crack. “By the grace of God, we have a little angel by the name of Ann Tisch.” When Borrero announced the gift, the room erupted in wild applause. “Congratulations to my fabulous kids!” she screamed over the noise.

Borrero said they plan to take students to Barcelona, Florence and Rome during the trip in early May. Borrero and Klonsky will lead a three-hour after-school program this spring for the students on the trip to introduce them to the art and architecture of the great European cities.

For the students — many of whom have never traveled outside of the United States — the trip to Europe represents a great opportunity.

Lateisha Wilson, 18 — who had two of her works on display in the gallery — was especially excited to see the buildings of the Old World.

“I want to be an architect, so I want to see how it’s different from New York City,” she said.

“I’m looking forward to Italy,” added Lucy Rodriguez, 17. “The art there is so beautiful. I’m so excited to go to Rome, to the Vatican.” Rodriguez, who is of Dominican descent, is also looking forward to learning more about her cultural roots. “I want to go to Spain because my family is from the D.R. and I want to know the art of my history.”

But for Chris Patterson, 17 — who is currently working on writing a “teen romance” in the high school’s publishing program — the trip is less about art.

“I want to go to Barcelona because I like playing soccer!” he said. “And I want to see the statue of David.”

Julisa Diaz, 17, said the trip represents a unique opportunity that she wouldn’t want to miss.

“I’m really excited,” she said. “This is my last chance to do something and experience something I can never experience again.”

Mark Federman, the school’s principal, was both impressed and proud at the gallery opening.

“This looks so professional,” he said of the teenagers’ artwork, “and it is professional because people are buying it — and keep buying it.” 

Federman said that the entire experience, from the gallery show, to the students’ fundraising for the trip to the Tisches’ generous donation, has been amazing.

“It’s just really special,” he said.