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Nonprofit Marwen's Expansion Gives Underserved Youths Room To Bloom

By Mina Bloom | December 17, 2015 6:26am | Updated on December 17, 2015 8:45am
 Ceramics made by Marwen students during the fall term.
Ceramics made by Marwen students during the fall term.
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DNAinfo/Mina Bloom

NEAR NORTH SIDE — Fifteen years after moving into an industrial building on Orleans Street, nonprofit organization Marwen — which offers free art classes to Chicago's underserved youths — is growing. 

The Near North Side nonprofit, 833 N. Orleans St., underwent $4.5 million in facility renovations in the fall in large part due to the generosity of private donors. The result is a brand new third floor with new studios, galleries, portfolio offices and equipment, as well as upgrades to a lot of the existing school. Even the entrance to the school is shiny and new. 

"We're seeing an increase in demand. That was the impetus for the project," said Brian Barasch, the agency manager of communications. The nonprofit is still fundraising toward a goal of $10 million. So far, it has raised more than $7 million, with the additional money going toward programming and sustainability.

Barasch said the main goal of the expansion was to increase enrollment by 30 percent by 2018, which equates to about 100 new students every term. The nonprofit is also looking to keep up with growing interest, as some of its most popular classes, like photography and fashion design, had waiting lists. 

Right now, Marwen estimates that a total of 900 students, ranging from sixth to 12th grade, take art classes each year. The classes, which are held at night or on the weekends, are taught by working artists and are free for "underserved" students who might come from a low-income family or one that can't afford extracurricular art classes. The definition is intentionally vague so it doen't exclude any students, Barasch said. Marwen also offers college counseling classes or one-on-one sessions.

"With art programs being cut all across Chicago, Marwen [classes] are 100 percent for students who are in need," Barasch said.

Barasch added that Marwen offers a range of classes that aren't typically offered at Chicago Public Schools — regardless of budget cuts. At Marwen, students can take classes in digital photography, 3D printing, ceramics and fashion design, just to name a few.

All of the projects students worked on during the eight-week fall term are on display throughout the building, and will remain up until early March. To accommodate more robust programming and more students, Marwen will start offering 10-week terms in the spring.

Angie Roman, 17, has been taking classes at Marwen since spring 2013. She travels an hour to get there from her Jefferson Park home.

"It's the core of who I am," Roman said of Marwen. "It's completely embedded in my soul."

Roman said she wouldn't be painting or drawing if it weren't for Marwen. At Taft High School, where she goes to school full-time, students can only take one year of art. 

"I felt extremely limited at school because it didn't have the supplies I needed. The atmosphere wasn't as comforting as Marwen. Even though [Marwen] is an hour away on a train, it's so much more beneficial to me," she said.

Roman is enrolled in the Marwen Lab, which is an independent study program for advanced high school students. The upcoming spring term will be Roman's last, which is bittersweet. 

"I found my best friends [at Marwen]. We're all extremely different in our style and the way we perceive art, but we're connected through Marwen because we all have a passion," she said.

Her opinion was shared by Ana Pineda, 17, who goes to school at ASPIRA Charter in Avondale.

"At first, I was messing around with art and doodling," Pineda said.

But after spending more than two years taking classes at Marwen, she said she's "definitely grown," and puts more thought and effort into her art than she did before.

Marwen was founded by Steven Berkowitz 28 years ago. It has called Orleans Street home since 2000. The recent expansion is the second major renovation for Marwen; it also underwent renovations in 1999.

"Everyone should be able to access these sorts of resources. We just want people to know it's available," Barasch said.

Check out the newly renovated building and some of the students' art below:

The main gallery at Marwen, where a lot of students' work from the fall term is currently on display. [All photos DNAinfo/Mina Bloom]

Paintings on display.

3-D prints on display.

A classroom on the all-new third floor.

A classroom at Marwen.

In the renovations, Marwen got a much larger photography dark room, with some equipment that was donated by Columbia College Chicago.

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