"What does it mean to transform lives through arts and culture, and how are we doing that now and how do we aspire to do that in the future?"
Published : Monday, August 5, 2019 | 4:48 AM
Going on one year as Executive Director of the Armory Center for the Arts, Leslie Ito is bringing a new energy to the venerable Pasadena art institution.
It’s been a learning and outreach year for Ito, who has been making assessments of the 30-year-old organization’s internal technology, helping to expand the educational component and reaching out and maintaining relationships with investors and partners.
But she takes a unique approach, one that comes from the point of view of inclusion as the main mission. Her growth over the year has included looking at how to improve systems, keep the educational piece going and reaching out to partners.
“I’ve allowed myself the time to really study what it is that we have set out to do,” Ito said. “What does it mean to transform lives through arts and culture, and how are we doing that now and how do we aspire to do that in the future?”
Pasadena born and raised, Ito was selected after a six-month national search and named the Armory’s Executive Director one year ago last June.
Ito has set new goals and is guiding the Armory towards meeting the goals that were already established, in terms of expansion of education, continued good relations in the community, and reaching out to new supporters.
The Armory’s operating budget is is in the $2.5 million-range and it’s split between contributed revenue between donors, foundations, some government and some corporate support. And that means engaging new partners and keeping existing supporters.
“Partnerships for me are incredibly important,” she said. “We don’t do this work in a bubble. All of our partnerships, from the City of Pasadena and the Pasadena Unified School District to our partners in the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network and in the community are really important. It has been really important for me to make sure that I’ve connected with and understand and start building relationships with all of our partners.”
Cultural Inclusion On-Site and Off-Site
As a Japanese-American, Ito said her outlook is sympathetic to engaging people of all backgrounds and enabling everyone to feel welcome at the Armory.
“One of the key things that I feel incredibly passionate and really have my eye on for the organization is, how do we welcome everybody to the Armory to ensure cultural equity and accessibility,” she said. “How do we create a sense of belonging to all people here at the Armory? And so we’ve been talking a lot about it on staff. You know, it’s not enough to invite somebody to the space, but for them to feel like they’re a part of it is really important.”
Ito has a background that is a blend of different experiences.
“My academic background is in ethnic studies but my practical work experience has always been in the arts and arts administration and working with artists,” she said. “And I believe strongly that arts and culture are a way to empower people to tell their own stories and build community and make social change. And, and so that’s how I view my work on a day to day basis. I think creative problem solving is really important as well.”
Non-Traditional Spaces, Expansion and Inclusion
Ito said expansion of the Armory community is a goal. The use of “non-traditional” spaces for art is key to getting the message of soul-soothing through creativity out into the community beyond the Armory Center.
So what are non-traditional spaces?
“I’m thinking arts and culture that happens in storefronts and living rooms and in clubs,” she said. “I think for many communities of color, the museum, white-walled galleries are not always where they think of participating in the arts for a variety of reasons. We need to make our own space more welcoming.
“I have a keen eye on how the Armory can play a role in Pasadena, but also how the Armory can play a role in the larger San Gabriel Valley,” she said. “I very much see Pasadena as part of the San Gabriel Valley and the San Gabriel Valley is incredibly rich with culture. But it may be in nontraditional spaces.
The Educational Aspect and working with Artist Teachers
With the schools there is an expansion of programs, Ito said.
“We’re working right now on expanding our curriculum for arts integration in education,” she said. “So we teach math and science in the elementary schools using the arts as a tool to teach those subjects. And we received a big grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences with the IMLS in September of 2018. It’s a three-year grant to develop curriculum, state standards based curriculum for K through five. And so we’re developing the curriculum, we’re working with teachers, we’re training teachers and artists on both sides to do the work. So we’re really excited about that piece because it will help us as I talk about sort of the expansion into the San Gabriel Valley.
One of the big strengths of the Armory is the on-site programs.
“On site we have our exhibitions program,” she said. “We have over 4,000 square feet of gallery space, and then our art studio where we teach four sessions across the year of art studio classes, everything from darkroom photography and digital photography to ceramics and more traditional painting and drawing, and classes for kids from 2 years old all the way up through adults.
“We believe strongly that learning from a practicing professional artist is fruitful for all people,” Ito said. “And so we invest in artists to teach them how to teach art. On the flip side, we invest in teachers and teach them how to use art to teach the core subjects. But in all of our programs, we’re working with professional artists. We really believe that the interaction between a professional artist and be they kids or older adults or incarcerated youth or the homeless population, that learning sequential arts and really making space for creativity is incredibly important to us. That’s really at the core values of the organization that we’re trying to nurture, meet each person where they are and nurture a sense of creativity.”
Educational Cooperative Partners
The Armory Center for the Arts works with a range of community partners, Ito said.
“We work with DWP, we work with the libraries, the school districts. One of our flagship programs is children investigating the environment. We teach science in the classrooms at the 10 week program.
“We teach science in the classrooms and then they take three to four field trips into the local environment such as the Arroyo,” Ito said. “It’s one of our flagship programs that’s been going on for a very long time and artists lead the sessions. They’re using the art to engage the environment, local environment and learn about science. Nowadays kids are glued to their electronics and to get them outside I think is really important. It’s the other thing that nurtures the soul.
Another program involves students coming to the Armory, they get a tour of the exhibitions with the practicing artists and they learn how to digest and talk about and dissect the work in the exhibitions and they pick up themes, Ito said.
“They’re developing a visual literacy, and then they move to the studio and they use those themes that they just picked up in the exhibition to make an actual piece of art that they can take home with them,” Ito said. “That’s a great example of the unique sweet spot of the Armory, because we’re not one or the other, but we’re like this magical combination of those. We aren’t a museum and we’re not just a straight school art school and we work with the professional practicing artists. ”
As far as technology goes, Ito has been working on upgrades.
“We’re in the process of changing some of our reporting systems and adopting new technology to help us,” she said. “One of the things I should mention that we were able to do this year that really preceded me, but the execution happened in this last 12 months is we upgraded our digital labs. So we have all new computers, thanks to the Ahmanson Foundation. We also have a mobile lab that we can take out to the community. And then on, on all of those new computers, we have formed a partnership with Adobe and we have a whole new Adobe creative suite on the computers.”
Ito said that her work is rewarding and she has had an eventful year of learning and using her strengths to grow the organization.
“I think I’ve brought a new energy to the organization, people are excited to come and be a part of the Armory,” she said. “I do think it’s the cultural equity piece that we’ve been talking, my vision is longterm, it isn’t big splashy projects. It’s really about building relationships and building partnerships. And that’s really what is most important to me.”
“I think that the Armory is incredibly lucky to have all of the great supporters that we’ve had over the 30 years,” Ito said. “That’s because of the hard work, and the blood, sweat and tears of our volunteers and our members and our donors and particularly our board members. I feel incredibly lucky to have been invited to join a family like this and I’m really excited to take it through its next journey.”