Pros Arts Studios seeks to elevate Pilsen youth with new name, new features

12/05/2012 10:00 PM

Igor Studenkov
Contributing Reporter

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Student in Pilsen’s Pros Arts program make papier mache masks for Carnaval in February 2012. The group recently rebranded as Elevarte Community Studio. Courtesy Pros Arts

An hour and a half before the big announcement, Pros Art Studios’ annual Pozadala fundraiser was filled the capacity. Guests struggled to squeeze between completely filled tables as volunteers tried to direct them toward an overflow area. The line toward the food tables stopped just short of the entrance. Within minutes, it became clear that even the overflow area wasn’t enough — they’d have to find more tables somehow.

What brought on such large crowds? Pro Arts Studios unveiling a new name.

After 34 years in operation, the Pilsen-based youth art organization became known as Elevarte Community Studios. The new name was devised to better reflect the community it serves. But the change was more than just a rebranding effort: It signaled a sweeping revamp that included a new website, improved facilities, greater social media presence, a shift in goals and an increased push to bring the organization more visibility.

Pros Arts Studio was founded in 1978. It started out as an arts-in-education residency program for St. Procopius School, one of Pilsen’s oldest Catholic schools. The name came from the parish nickname, “St. Pros.” The founders believed that teaching kids arts would not only enrich their lives, but improve the community they lived in.

In 1980s, Pros Arts expanded to schools in Pilsen and Little Village, offering a variety of visual, media and performance arts programs. In 1993, it became one of the first participants in Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE). It teamed up with Walsh Elementary School to create a program that integrated arts into language arts, science and social studies courses. Their effort proved to be successful enough to allow Pros Arts to expand the program into eight more schools.

Though it all, the studio tried to make their programs relevant to their largely Mexican-American students. It organized neighborhood events, including the Day of the Dead, the Day of the Child and Carnival celebrations.

Today, Pros Arts has programs in 20 schools and community centers. Since 2002, it has been operating out of Dvorak Park. While it has received accolades and media attention from Chicago-based organizations, it wasn’t widely known outside the neighborhoods it served.

Giselle Mercier set out to change that.

Mercier became museum’s Executive Director on February 2009, replacing its founding director. By the time she assumed the position, the recession caused fundraising and grant opportunities to decline, forcing organizations like Pros Arts to fight for every piece of an ever-shrinking pie. In order to be competitive, the studio had to stand out.

Under Mercier’s leadership, the organization worked to increase its social media presence and added digital media programs. It looked at who their programs were reaching and what they could do to reach more community members. It also made an effort to show that the skills kids learn from their programs have applications beyond engaging creativity.

“We are really looking at how art provides platform for youth development,” explained Mercier. “I think [in the past] we’ve been really shy about telling that art can help community development, that those skills are job translatable.”

She said they wanted to do more, but Pros Arts didn’t have the means or the resources to do it until this year, when it successfully applied for the Grant for Good. The grant is a collaborative effort of Chicago area businesses that agreed to offer their services and resources to help non-profits reinvent themselves. They chose Pros Arts for 2012.

Mercier couldn’t be happier with the results.

“They helped us in several areas,” she said. “We had an assigned photographer who took pictures of events in classes. We had Mary Morton [President of Morton Group consulting firm] provide us with organizational and resource development. Pivotal Productions [media marketing firm] taught us social media strategies. Latent Design [architecture collaborative] came in and redid our space to create better workflow. Firebelly Design worked with us close to six months to come up with a new name for our organization and create all of our visuals, logos, letterhead and a new website.”

Getting a new name was an important part of the revamping process.

“The [old] name was very tied to the beginning of the organization at St. Procopius,” said Mercier. “We felt that the name that actually addressed what we’re doing with our constituents.”

And what is it that the newly minted Elevarte Community Studio is doing?

“We are elevating the quality of life of every student who studies art and technology. We are elevating the quality for life of every community member through arts and technology.”

In an interview prior to the name change, Mercier reflected that, while the shift might be difficult, she believed that it was necessary.

“Sometimes, its not well received,” she said. “Our funders want to be able to say ‘we funded an organization that’s 35 years old,’ but with time come change. The staff I work with are young people who understand the importance of change, that we need to be out there, stop being [Pilsen’s] best kept secret and take a leadership role in arts education.”

At the Pozadala fundraiser, at least, the reception was positive. Victoria Martinez, a guest at the fundraiser, was downright effusive.

“I love it because it combines English and Spanish,” she said. “I like the [logo] design and the font. It’s very elegant.”

It will take at least a month before all the pieces of the revamp are in place. The new website isn’t live as of this writing, and the new space won’t be unofficially unveiled until January 18, 2013.

As the revamp gets underway, the studio is looking into the future. Over the past few years, Pilsen has seen some gentrification, and crime rates have declined. But, as Mercier sees it, the organization’s mission is as important as ever.

“There is a lot of gentrification, but the need of classes is still abundant,” she said. “So we try to reach out to neighborhoods that are like what Pilsen was twenty years ago. We are looking for ways to expand and continue to work with Mexican-American families.”

The impact of their work could be felt at the fundraiser. In the run-up to the unveiling of the new name, Abel Ochoa, a former Pros Arts student who worked his way up to its Board of Directors, took the time to explain what the organization meant to him.

“In Pros Arts, I found another family, a fellowship. It’s a great outlet and,” he added with a chuckle, “it kept me out of trouble.”

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By Giselle Mercier from Pilsen
Posted: 12/07/2012 12:08 PM

Dear Pilsen Guy: (continued) We are more than happy to chat with you directly about additional concerns over the new name. Please give us a call at (312) 226-7767 or email us at [email protected] Also, please join us at our Elevarte Community Studio Open House on January 18, 2013 from 4PM to 8PM.

By giselle mercier from pilsen
Posted: 12/07/2012 12:05 PM

Dear Pilsen Guy (continued) ...practices for an organization takes vision and hard work and our new name not only reflects our dual language constituents but it speaks to the way we see the arts “elevating the quality of life” of our neighbors. ElevArte Community Studio (formerly Pros Arts Studio) will continue to provide FREE high-quality arts programming throughout the year, an impossibility without a sustainable plan.

By Giselle Mercier from PIlsen
Posted: 12/07/2012 12:02 PM

Dear Pilsen Guy (continued) No one can be more grateful to our founders who through our evolution have remained steadfast in their support and their presence continues to be felt within our organization. Change is never easy but we recognize that organizations that thrive have always been ready to bend, flex and adapt to change. This re-branding initiative did not happen in a vacuum—a lot of thought went into it and key stakeholders were part of the decision. Implementing strategic growth

By Giselle Mercier from Pilsen
Posted: 12/07/2012 12:00 PM

Dear Pilsen Guy: Thanks for your feedback and for recognizing the excellent work of our organization, past and present. I am thankful to everyone who has been part of our 34-year history. We are proud of the legacy we have inherited and recognize it is the result of a communal journey of primarily Pilsen residents that through their dedication and perseverance opened the path that allowed us to get this far. (continuing)

By pilsen guy from Pilsen
Posted: 12/07/2012 10:37 AM

Sorry my friend, but I do not applaud Ms. Mercier on the name change. If Ms. Mercier wanted an organization to be named by her, then maybe she should have created a new organization for herself. And once again, I will say that it's been very disrespectful to the people who have supported, worked and built up Pros Arts over the years, to make it what it is today. Shame on her to erase the name and legacy of Pros Arts !

By Another pilsen guy from Pilsen
Posted: 12/06/2012 2:58 PM

I for one applaud the new name. If the organization is growing with more youth, and more people are becoming aware of their programs, it makes sense to have a name that clearly describes what it does. Elevarte conjures up "elevate through arts." Pros Arts doesnt' doesn't do that. The commenter above is right, the programs aren't changing. They are becoming stronger, so why should Ms. Mercier be criticized for that? I am sure the founders would be happy to see it grow.

By pilsen guy from Pilsen
Posted: 12/06/2012 1:15 PM

Pros Arts has been a great organization over the years. Why the name change is somewhat mind-boggling, here you have a well established community organization and you change the name ! It's like renaming the Sears tower (idiotic) ! Changing the name will not elevate the youth, the programs will ! I think that it's a bad idea and a disrespect to the founders and artist/teachers of Pros Arts who had struggled over the years to make it what it is ! Ms. Mercier, bad move !