Barbara Chandler Allen is known for being called a “place maker.” She has a knack for changing places, she said during our interview, by bringing in art, music, or sometimes even plants.
Allen is not an interior designer or architect, but sees the possibilities in spaces and enjoys making these changes so people feel differently in them and work differently. She is one of two founders of Fresh Artists, a nonprofit organization with a mission to promote access for all children to the transformative self-expression of art making and philanthropy.
How did Fresh Artists come to be?
My son, Roger and I, started Fresh Artists in 2008 because we saw something broken. As designers, we had been invited to decorate the new School District headquarters building at 440 North Broad in 2005. I’m sure you’ve been there.
A previous superintendent named Paul Vallas bought the old Inquirer printing plant because his employees were all over the city in many different buildings. He refurbished it into an office building and then brought Roger and me in to ”bring the face of the children into the building,” so everyone would know whom they were working to serve. Roger had the foresight to suggest we use enormous digital enlargements of children’s art instead of the actual originals. The building was huge, over 850,000 square feet, and tiny works of art would have looked insignificant and out of scale.
After working on the project for several months, we began to watch art education budgets being slashed, due to the fiscal crisis this district was experiencing, as with many districts across the country. One day, over lunch, Roger noted that a day didn’t go by that someone asked to purchase one of these large-format photographs of a child’s artwork — that they seemed to be very popular, attracting a great deal of interest. We had been dismissing inquiries for months, saying “They’re not for sale. We’re only decorating the building with them.” Roger observed, “Everyone wants to own these blow ups and the school district needs money to buy art supplies to keep art making alive in their schools. What if we put these two ideas together: The supply of children’s artwork and the apparent demand for people who love it and want to help the city schools.”
So, we started a nonprofit called Fresh Artists. We invited children to donate the use of a digital image of a selected work of art they made and asked them to do this for the purpose of helping other kids — to be a philanthropist through their art. We invite businesses to make a donation to Fresh Artists, then give that business a “thank-you” gift of a large digital photograph of any child’s artwork in our collection to display on the walls of their business. The corporate donations fund the delivery of art supplies and innovative art programs in our public schools suffering with big cutbacks in art budgets.
How was it decided that you would use enlarged pieces of youth artwork?
Roger had worked in a digital print shop and understood the medium and its powerful, positive affect on people. He had a good sense of scale and knew that a high-resolution digital photograph could produce a stunning print. We were excited about having the young artists see their work blown up so large, changing the building from a cold, gray office building into a lively, hospitable place to work because of these bold, vibrant pictures.