The Art of Cool
ONE RIVER SCHOOL CLOSES THE GAP IN ARTS EDUCATION BETWEEN CITIES AND SUBURBS
One River School closes the gap in arts education between cities and suburbs
When Matt Ross looked for a cool art class near his Cresskill home in 2010, he noticed the suburbs had almost nothing to offer. While New York City had many options, students in nearby suburbs looking for a hip, current art education had few choices, despite being just one river away from Manhattan.
Determined to bring that experience to Bergen County, Ross cofounded the One River School of Art and Design in Englewood.
“Most art schools here are both old and traditional or they’re cutesy and crafty,” says Ross, who had been traveling to the city for adult art education. “The more I fell in love with art, the more I realized we had a problem in America because we weren’t creating cool places for young people to learn how to make art.”
Ross sought a solution to what he felt was our country’s broken arts education system. “In public school, art is taught in a very controlled environment where everyone’s projects look the same, so we don’t cultivate students who actually want to learn and stick with creating things,” he says, noting that arts funding is commonly cut from school budgets altogether. “So fundamentally, K-12 art education has been compromised and it certainly hasn’t evolved. And there are very few places for kids to go after school near their home for a ‘wow’ experience.”
Opened in 2012, One River School offers classes to students age 3 through adult, with curriculums built around contemporary art, inspired by living artists creating “cool, current and relevant” art today. Classes cover everything from drawing and painting to sculpture in either a shuffle class, where the medium and the project change each month, or a focus class, which allows students to study just one subject.
Starting in third grade, students can also take digital art classes in the school’s high-tech digital suite, studying topics like anime, fashion design and digital painting.
“We use tablet-based technology that allows students to create character and form by hand, so they learn basic analog skills of drawing, and then use software like SketchBook Pro and Photoshop to manipulate those images,” says Ross, adding that students create 2D animations that takes static characters and creates movement. “We integrate audio so students are really creating the stepping stones of animation.”
The school’s photography program teaches students the basics of working a camera and assigns a new project each month.
“It could be as simple as shooting a portraiture or urban scene or doing close-up photography, but we make sure to focus on the art form,” Ross says. “We want students to add nuances that make these photos look unique.”
Ross knows firsthand the importance of enhanced arts education. As the founding CEO of School of Rock, the nation’s leader in music education, he has seen countless children find themselves when they have a place to explore their creative side. “Here, in suburbia, we’re sports crazed,” he says, “so part of my mission with School of Rock over the last 10 years has been to create great creative enrichment for kids who aren’t sports crazed. And now we’re adapting visual arts through a similar process.”
Beyond an incomparable arts education, the school offers students a valuable social advantage as well. “Students find that they’re working around like-minded, creative kids who remind them of themselves,” Ross says. “They can let their guard down and be themselves. That’s as important to our success as anything we teach.”
Twice a year, the school celebrates the students with four-day exhibitions of their work. “We fill up all the walls in the facility. There are sculptures and paintings and there are animations on our digital screens,” Ross says. “The students beam with pride showing their family and friends what they’ve done.”
This year, 11 students in the school’s teen art residency program are creating bodies of work that will be displayed across the country in a series of pop-up exhibitions.
“We’re giving kids a massive goal and then taking them to exhibit in five cities,” he says. “Hopefully, this inspires an understanding of what it takes to be a real artist.”
The school also curates solo exhibitions several times a year, displaying work from world-class emerging artists in their front space. “Our mission is to expand people’s sense of what contemporary emerging art looks like by exposing the public to these artists,” says Ross, noting that the artists themselves come in to give talks to guests and offer advanced critiques to students. “We want to show both students and young artists that we value their work and want to celebrate them by giving them a voice.”
Unlike most other art schools, One River School is not semester based, so students can start anytime and sign up monthly. “Kids don’t get to just try things anymore because the cost is too great, but after a month here, if you don’t dig it, you can stop,” says Ross.
With a second school opening in Allendale this fall, Ross hopes to bring the franchise to communities around the country.
“People can’t travel too far for weekly classes,” he says, “so for anyone who wants to learn to make art, we want to give them a great place to do that close to home.”