The smudges on the outside of the huge front windows speak volumes to James C. Horton. “If you go look at the glass there’s just the oil from people’s hands and noses and faces being pressed against the glass,” Horton explains, “Because they’re curious, and they can see what is happening in this bustling arts community.”
Horton is the new president of the Harlem School of the Arts, whose new front windows face onto St. Nicholas Avenue just north of 141st Street. For 59 years the school has been a source of after school and weekend arts and culture programs for students from 18 months to 18 years of age. Like most every cultural and education institutions in New York, HSA was hit hard by Covid. Horton, a big man in both stature and vision, clearly has arrived with ideas to build back better, both by bringing inside those watching from the outside and by getting outside the building in new ways.
Most dramatically, Horton says he imagines a day when HSA might be a place for both academic and artistic development K-12 and beyond.
Kids from Harlem Academy, right down the block, do come by for art classes. But for the most part HSA’s sprawling building, set dramatically against the cliffs of Hamilton Heights, is underused during the school day.
Horton Wants to Build Harlem’s First Art High School
“Why don’t we have an arts high school in Harlem,” asks Horton, unspooling his hopes: “Coming out of the pandemic and all the learning loss that has happened in these communities. It’s hard to make that up. Damn near impossible with students who are already starting the game at a deficit. So what can we do to inspire and work with them differently, and use their God given talent to propel them through life, and just lean in on that a little but more? Provide them a little bit more technique and keep them going.”
Harlem School of the Arts was founded in 1964 in the basement of St. James PresbyterianChurch, by a famous opera singer, Dorothy Maynor, who also happened to be the pastor’s wife. Maynor, who performed at not one, but two, presidential inaugural festivities (for Harry S.Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower), had a simple vision for HSA: Students should not have to leave Harlem to experience beauty. One of Horton’s goals is to get new generations to more fully appreciate Maynor’s legacy and message. “Not only was she an amazing vocalist,” he says, “She was an activist. She was an educator. She was a bringer together of people. A true visionary.
“I’m just amazed her story has been omitted from Harlem history,” Says Horton, who came to HSA from a stint as vice president for engagement at the Museum of the City of New York.
“She’s not one of the people you hear about when you start to talk about black history.” Horton gets so passionate on raising awareness about Maynor that he starts to imagine the play or movie about her, and even casts it. “Audra Mc Donald would destroy this in the theatre or on Broadway.”
Turning life into art is kind of the point of Harlem School of the Arts. And vice versa. Unlike Julliard or other famous art and performance schools, professional success is a byproduct not a purpose, Horton explains.
The school’s 800 (now back) on campus students come mostly from Northern Manhattan and the Bronx and study everything from dance, music and vocals, to digital art and comic book making.
“Ultimately, striving toward excellence,” says Horton, “and not necessarily excellence in the arts as much as it is excellence in their day-to-day. Every single thing they do. Using the arts as a tool to model that and as a standard for them to achieve beyond the arts. And just in life, in general. If you strive toward excellence you’re going to be ok. You’re going to be ok.”
Even if it has not been the purpose, an impressive number of HSA students have gone on to professional success, including Lenny Kravitz, Ilfanesh Hadera, Giancarlo Esposito and Caleb McLaughlin.
But it is the story of another alum, who dropped by just the other day, that Horton offers to illustrate the school’s profound influence in the community.
The alum lead Horton to a large picture on the lobby wall of a bunch of kids from some 40 years ago. That wall depicting the school’s history was created as part of a recent renovation, funded by the musician Herb Alpert, that was completed during the pandemic. It tore away the brick front of the original school and opened it to the street with those large glass windows now smudged by hands and faces.
“You had no idea what was going on in here,” Horton said of the old, walled in building. “You knew it was a safe space because no one could get in.”
But now that the front is windows, kids and their parents walk by all the time and see inside.
The alumni saw the history wall and told Horton he was one of those kids in the picture. “I was eleven years old and at the same time I was bottling crack,” The alumni told Horton.
“This place, and this guitar, helped me stay on the straight and narrow. And it gave me a safe place to be,” Horton quoted the alum, who told Horton he went on to a career in the NYPD and now teaches law enforcement and safety classes.
“This set him up for the future,” the man told Horton. The alum concluded by telling Horton he now has an eleven-year-old of his own, who he promised to bring in for lessons.
“If a Misty Copeland comes out of the program, awesome,” Horton says of the prima ballerina. “But that’s not what we are trying to do. I think that is the by-product of striving for excellence and making sure that our young people know that, if I’m going to do anything, I’m going to go all out and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”
Which also seems to sum up James C. Horton’s plan for being President of the Harlem School of the Arts.
“Ultimately, striving toward excellence, and not necessarily excellence in the arts as much as it is excellence in their day-to-day. Every single thing they do.” James C Horton, president of the Harlem School of the Arts.