Jeanne Nathan, director of the Creative Alliance of New Orleans (CANO), once bought a set of Cutco knives from a teenager selling them door to door to pay for college. She asked him what school he was planning to attend, and his answer surprised her. He said he was going to the Ringling College of Arts and Design, a private arts school in Sarasota, Fla., started by one of the Ringling brothers and specializing in the visual arts.
It's rare, Nathan said, for a kid growing up in New Orleans to learn about niche art schools in other parts of the country. "We have such an unusually high number of creative kids in our schools," she said. "But I'll bet they're not getting information on educational programs that they can seek out to advance their talent."
CANO, which Nathan founded, is a nonprofit organization that helps artists run their businesses by providing support, education and advocacy for the artistic community of New Orleans. With the help of her staff, Nathan launched an online database of arts educational programs and job listings in New Orleans and the metro area. The database now includes opportunities in several other Southern states.
But shortly after curating the list for the website, Nathan realized the concept was much broader than the online listings. Why not teach a class in New Orleans public schools to prepare young artists for the realities of the job market?
In September 2012, Nathan approached John McDonogh High School, the Esplanade Avenue high school recently taken over by national charter organization Future Is Now. The school agreed to give CANO two classrooms to pilot the program, which they dubbed "Creative Futures," and students started dropping by for informal workshops during their free periods.
"We had this room that was sort of like a clubhouse, in a way," Nathan said. "And it was a place where the kids could come on their lunch hour and work with us. So we started showing them the database as it was being developed."
Myles Scott, a junior at John McDonogh, said he joined Creative Futures last fall to try out something new. He wasn't sure which of the arts interested him, but when a graphic artist came to class to talk about the icons he designs for video games, it struck a chord.
"I just play games a lot," he said. "I wanted to know how to make them, how they write them and that kind of stuff." Scott is young — 16 — but the idea of designing video games helped him see a potential career path. He knows that to create the stories for games, for example, he'll need to learn how to write. If he wants to go into design, he'll need to learn to draw and develop code.
"(Gaming) is not a very big market out here," Scott said. "It's mostly music, but I could probably bring it up. I'm interested in all of it. Drawing, game writing, story writing and editing."
Nathan hired Danielle Dayries, a career consultant, to lead the workshop, which became an official enrichment class a year later. Dayries designed a curriculum that focuses on "exposing kids to things that fall under the career cluster called art, so that they realize that in the city of New Orleans, there are so many opportunities that fall underneath that very large umbrella," she said. "From being involved with a movie set, lighting design, graphic design, costume design, to of course traditional visual art, ballet or graphic design."
From there, Dayries encourages students to research the kinds of education, skills and experience that go into landing those jobs.
"I always use the expression, 'not everyone can be Beyonce,'" Nathan said, "but you can work as Beyonce's audio engineer. You can work as her publicist. You can work as her stagehand." It's a matter of teaching kids about those less talked about careers. Part of the way Dayries hopes to do that is by bringing in professional artists from the community to speak candidly about their careers with students in the class.
Though the program's database extends as far as Alabama and Texas, one main goal of Creative Futures is to keep young artists in New Orleans with the skills they need to manage their businesses and market themselves. Dayries wants kids to realize that they don't need to move to Los Angeles or New York to pursue their passions.
Last week, John McDonogh announced it would close in May and its students would move to other schools, but Nathan is confident Creative Futures will find a way to continue operating its class. The idea was always to expand to more high schools around the city, and CANO already is working with eight schools on a separate arts education project, solidifying relationships for future collaboration.
"We're hoping to be a bright spot for kids having to go through a lot with these changes," Nathan said. "We have already been in discussion with other schools. We will relocate for next term."
Alphonse Smith, director of Creative Futures, said a major push for the upcoming semester will be matching students like Scott with local businesses that can help them experience exactly what working in a particular industry entails. Smith said he plans to reach out to the national gaming company GameLoft, which opened a studio in New Orleans in 2011, to discuss potential internships for students.
Creative Futures also has added a sound and film component to its programming for the upcoming semester in an effort to cater to two of the city's most lucrative artistic industries.
"With the film industry in this city, too many of those jobs are being filled by outsiders because our population doesn't have the educational training," Nathan said. "When we start building our own local base of those jobs, then we're not subject to the whims of whoever's got the best tax credit in the country."
Nathan hosts a radio show each week on WBOK-FM called Crosstown Conversations. This semester, students in Creative Futures will produce an episode of the show each month. A student in the master of fine arts program at the University of New Orleans (UNO) is lined up to teach a film class.
Reaching out to universities is another important element of the course, Smith said. "We know that every student has a choice whether they are going to go to college or not," he said. "That's something that we always need to keep in mind. This semester we plan to interface the kids with college mentors. ... We've approached Loyola University, UNO and Xavier University. They've all expressed an interest in helping us out. Not only are they getting some professional insight, they're also going to be working with students closer to their age who can give them a realistic idea of what college is about."
Another crucial part of the course: financial literacy. "A lot of our artists and performers here did not have the professional background to function professionally, in a business context," Nathan said of pre-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.
Creative Futures hosted an art show for its students last year, and each student was required to open a bank account before getting a check for the paintings sold. Last year, Regions Bank, which has helped fund Creative Futures, brought in one of its top bankers to teach the rudiments of maintaining bank accounts. Those classes will return this semester. "We really thought that might not be the most intriguing thing for them," Nathan said. "They ate it up."
For Scott, the fact that anyone can make money in the creative fields was a surprise. Even if he doesn't go into gaming, he said he is excited to learn he can make a living pursuing something that interests him.
"Once I got in there I realized that you can really do this," he said. "Any new stuff I'd be down to learn."