Santa Fe understands the importance of introducing kids to art at an early age, and so, it seems, does the White House. On Oct. 20, in a ceremony at the White House, representatives from Fine Arts for Children and Teens (FACT) were presented with the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. First lady Michelle Obama was there to personally greet the 15 national winners. SFR talked with FACT Executive Director Julia Bergen about the organization’s honors, FACT’s mission, as well as the classes and events FACT has planned this winter, including a Dec. 11 teen art workshop on graphic illustration, a winter break art camp (Dec. 27-31), an online art auction (Dec. 1-7), and the FACT student art show at Santa Fe City Hall (Dec. 1-Jan. 31, 2011).

SFR: What is your personal experience with the arts?
JB: I grew up in northern New Jersey and had a really terrific public education where there was a lot of art. In my high school years, I found my way to a community art center where I began to study photography and weaving. The arts were always such an essential part of my life and provided an escape from difficulty and, also, enabled me to discover my own strengths as a thinker and creator. Knowing that, [FACT] is a very natural place for me to be because the founders’ intention was to really create a place where children would be safe and be able to explore their own creative capacity, and it’s really born of the belief that art can save lives.

Do kids from other parts of the state have any social resistance to engaging in art?
To the extent that there might be someone who doesn’t feel like it’s cool to be an artist—I’m not sure that we’ve really run into a lot of that. Our teachers really generate so much enthusiasm and they themselves are all professional artists, and they bring so much into the room that it’s really captivating for students. They want to participate. Kids really want to learn. They want to stretch. They want to be challenged.

So then, in your experience, what is the biggest threat to learning? It’s obviously not the kids.
The threat to public education is lack of funding. It involves an approach and an outlook on teaching and learning that has become very skewed. We have, in so many respects, really taken the child out of the equation. We want kids to excel and move forward in very particular ways, and to demonstrate their knowledge, but we do not necessarily support their capacity to become independent thinkers and learners. The emphasis on so much testing and rote learning denies them the opportunity to develop those skills that are just so essential to functioning in the world. We’ve traveled very, very far from the child. And what I’d like to see, and what I think we strive to do with our programs in and out of schools, is to keep the focus on the child.

Perhaps FACT’s recent recognition in Washington will help bring that focus back. Instructor Melinda Baker and student Vianney Campos accepted the award; did you also go to Washington?
I went, but I didn’t go to the East Room of the White House. While I was in Washington, I met with staff in Sen. [Tom] Udall’s office and Sen. [Jeff] Bingaman’s office. One of our former students, Molly Weisse-Bernstein, works for Sen. Bingaman. She started taking classes with FACT when she was 8, and she is now a staffperson in the senator’s office. Myself, Vianney, her parents and Melinda Baker all met at Sen. Bingaman’s office, and Molly took us on a tour of the Capitol. It was very special to see, full-circle, somebody who really was powerfully impacted and positively impacted by our program, and where she is today and what she’s doing. It was beautiful, and wonderful for Vianney.

Vianney and Melinda personally accepted the award from the first lady in a ceremony at the White House. What was that like?
Both Melinda and Vianney said that it was one of the most amazing experiences of their lives. One of the things that the first lady said in her introduction that morning was that any young person who can come to the White House, walk up and onto a stage, and greet the first lady of the country is a young person that can pretty much do anything. I think that is very much about what we’re trying to do for our students—to really help them come to believe that they are capable of doing and achieving anything that they want. The arts happen to be the vehicle through which we think that can really happen.