On any given day when passing by, there are legions of young, hopeful actors hanging around outside this building in between classes. Lee Strasberg, known to moviegoers for his role as gangster Hyman Roth in The Godfather: Part II, founded his institute in 1969, almost forty years after he participated in the formation of the Group Theatre (an ensemble of actors that were committed to putting on productions representative of "the life of their times. ") As artistic director of the Institute until his death in 1982, Strasberg continued to train his students through Method Acting - a technique that has been recognized internationally. Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe, Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Barbra Streisand, and Marlo Thomas are only a few of the actors who were taken under Strasberg's wing and taught to fly. Today, the Institute continues to flourish as it turns out many fine actors both here and at its Hollywood location. For those who would like to watch some of this training in action, there are two theaters (The Marilyn Monroe Theater and the Lee Strasberg Theater) connected to the Institute where students perform.
The New York Studio School occupies a space rich in history. After being purchased by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1907, the now-landmarked building was home to art studios, important exhibitions, and later, in 1931, the Whitney Museum. Founded by American artist and educator Mercedes Matter, the New York Studio School saved the space from being demolished and now perpetuates the creative legacy that was born there. Matter and her peers created NYSS as a place for alternative arts education. It retains the “old-school” focus on studio-based practice, where drawing, painting, and sculpture are at the core of its Master of Fine Arts and certificate programs. However, rather than instructing students on attaining fame and fortune, its mission is a more enriching one. “We teach how to be a lifelong artist and how art can be in your future forever, ” said Director of Development Alex Williams. To this end, the school also features several options that are free of charge and are designed to bring art education to the public at large. Anyone interested may attend NYSS’ evening lecture series and gallery exhibitions, which highlight unknown New York artists or uncover neglected art from more prominent names. One can even take a tour of Whitney’s old art studio, which was designated a National Treasure in 2014. A particularly exciting feature is an elaborate, twenty-foot fireplace in the room depicting plaster serpentine and mythological figures climbing the walls and other fantastical scenes that extend onto the ceiling.
The Art Students League was founded by National Academy of Design students who were seeking a new, independent source of instruction as the school was rumored to be closing. Though membership was initially slim enough to fit in one room on 16th Street, the League now teaches thousands of people using a nineteenth-century model that endures today. It serves as “a beacon for any artist with a dream, ” said the head archivist, Stephanie Cassidy. The building is filled with clay, paint, easels, and a constant hum of activity. Visitors can walk its halls and imagine a time when the likes of Jackson Pollock, Norman Rockwell, and Georgia O’Keeffe either took or taught classes at this New York City landmark. However, there is no need to be intimidated by the reputation of its more distinguished alums. Unlike many other serious art education programs that have become increasingly exclusive and expensive, Stephanie is adamant that “there is no gatekeeping here. It is what makes us unique. ” Equally as interesting is the League’s lack of a formal curriculum. Instead, most of its students are empowered to guide themselves and follow their specific passions. Aspiring photographers, graphic artists, animators, and more need only enter the building to find a cornucopia of opportunity.
Even without taking an art class, I began to feel a sense of calm and purpose in the presence of Rebecca Schweiger, the owner and founder of The Art Studio NY. I arrived in the middle of an adult class in which the students, all women, were being taught how to create photo transfers of architecture. I watched the women critique each other's work good-naturedly, pointing out "lines that move your eye" and "good use of layers. " The students were comfortable enough that they were not afraid to make suggestions, using comparisons between the other pieces in the group as inspiration. In the background, classical music played unobtrusively. The walls of the classroom were covered in art that ran the gamut from a pop art Alice in Wonderland to a gray scale still-life. After focusing on each photo transfer individually, the ladies seemlessly shifted towards talking about their experiences during the project. As one woman pointed out, "The key is knowing when to stop. "After the class, I chatted with the women, who were probably close to my own age and were all friends. "This is our favorite day of the week, " they uniformly agreed. Not having an ounce of artistic talent, I was so inspired by these ladies, and simply having a wonderful time being creative. I actually considered signing up on the spot. As they filtered out, I was then able to speak with Rebecca and hear her amazing story. Rebecca started The Art Studio NY in 2004 in her apartment with five students. Rebecca is a trained painter who has always been "enamored by the power of creativity. " In addition to being a painter, I believe she should consider herself a poet. She told me, "Art is one of the best kept secrets. It's an elixir for all life experiences. " At a certain point in her own life, Rebecca realized that she wanted to teach. "I always wanted to make a difference in people's lives. " Her goal in The Art Studio NY is to bring art to people who do not think that they are creative. From weekly classes for the very young to "paint and sip" sessions with groups of adult friends - complete with wine - her days are jam packed with interested artists on any and every level. Rebecca's style of teaching is very different from that taught in art schools. She attended Boston University's College of Fine Arts, where she found that their philosophy did not mesh well with how she wanted to experience learning. As she explained, "They taught well if you wanted to be cutthroat and competitive. " In The Art Studio NY, Rebecca makes sure that the environment is relaxed and that people can work at their own pace. Fifteen different teachers work at the studio so that class sizes can remain small and Rebecca lets each teacher's strengths shine. "It is important that my instructors bring their greatest passions, " Rebecca said, adding that though there is structure to each class, she does not stifle any teacher's creativity. As for the studio itself, it is a unique space that became available to Rebecca by chance. She lives in the building and is very friendly with the doormen, who know everything there is to know about the neighborhood. After teaching out of her apartment for a few years, she asked the men if they knew about any available space in the building. They came back to her with the news that one of the basement apartments, which was zoned to be commercial, was soon to be vacated. Although it is a little out of the way and can only be accessed by riding the elevator, Rebecca has been quite pleased with her location. She considers the elevator a great safety measure for the children, as they can never escape without the doormen's knowledge. This is a good precaution for a studio that caters to children as young as two-years-old (for the Mommy and Me programs). On the subject of children, Rebecca was sure to tell me that, "The kids' classes are not babyish. " She recognizes that little ones are sponges, and so she teaches them the same things as adults. She was proud to tell me that one woman who interned with The Art Studio NY had started taking classes from Rebecca when she was seven-years-old. She is now a student at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). "It feels great, " Rebecca shared. Though the 96th Street classrooms are Rebecca's main studio, she and her fellow instructors teach throughout the city in after school programs, and work with corporations on team building events. When discussing the adult instruction, Rebecca commented, "Many of these people have never picked up a paintbrush since Pre-K. " Not only do the professionals get to try something they may have never done before, but they also get to work next to people they usually do not work alongside. A story that Rebecca relayed was when she was asked to organize an event for the entire staff of the newly branded Lexington Hotel. "It was a lot of paint and a lot of canvasses, " but she loved it. During the art class, one of the housekeepers was painting right next to the CEO. Rebecca remembers that at the end, a different housekeeper came up to her and said, "Ever since I was a little girl, I've always wanted to take an art class. " It warmed Rebecca's heart. In addition to these outreach art lessons, The Art Studio NY offers events outside of its normal classes, including drawing classes at the park or in one of the museums. Rebecca even holds Date Nights, in which two people work on the same project. Thanks to the studio's relationship with hotels, they are able to cater to tourists who are only in town for a short time but are eager for this art experience. No matter whom Rebecca happens to be teaching, she has the same goal of wanting to "bring people's creative spirits alive. " She clarified that the classes are not just about art: they "are about growing and gaining self-esteem. " As the mother of a talented artist from the time he was a very young child, I fully appreciated Rebecca's philosophy on teaching, but also her kind and gentle way with each of her students. She told me that parents often tell her that they can sense a physical and emotional shift in their child after they have taken a class. They notice that "there's a happier, more relaxed person in front of them. " Parents have described their children as being "more mellow" on days when they have a class at The Art Studio NY. Rebecca says this is because art "gives them wings and space to express themselves. " I am sure that she is correct; however, I am also certain that it because of Rebecca, herself, that everyone is happier after spending an hour in her presence. I could have sat and listened to Rebecca for another hour, as I found her to be totally enchanting, but we both had other appointments. Before leaving, Rebecca revealed to me that she was recently contacted by a publisher to write a book about creativity. This means that she is now benefitting from two artistic outlets: painting and writing. In closing, Rebecca left me saying that she feels strongly that the world is at the beginning of a "creative revolution. " If this is true, I see Rebecca as one of New York's most passionate revolutionaries.
In 2014, Mood Fabrics launched an innovative new side to its company, Mood U. Located on the second floor, a space that used to house furniture from Mood Home is now filled with seventy sewing machines, set up in neat rows. This is where classes are taught for beginners up through advanced students. When I visited, it was the first day of an open sewing lab that was slated to happen every Thursday. I met with Benjamin Mach, the director of Mood U, who was also a contestant on "Project Runway" (the fashion reality show uses Mood's materials for most of its on-screen challenges). Ben, who has been running classes at Mood U since early 2015, told me that the open labs began because students had started asking instructors for tips on personal projects after class. In response, a time was created when members of the school could come in with whatever they were working on and receive advice and assistance. Ben admitted that he will always be excited to see what comes out of the open labs. He already witnessed one unique project – a woman trying to teach herself how to make baby booties. Ben, who had only been the director of the school for two weeks when I visited, confessed that though he has had to jump in head first (“literally – I’ve jumped in the deep end”), he was looking forward to “putting his spin on things. ” He shared a bit more about the origins of the school: The Los Angeles location of Mood began running classes in 2013 with immediate success. This continued and enhanced when the school opened in New York. There are a wide range of workshops focusing on different items, techniques, and materials. Some past classes that Ben mentioned included instruction in leather-working, a How-To in making clutch bags, and beginner sewing courses. As to who takes the classes, Ben says it can be a wide range of people. He informed me that though there are those who are looking at going to fashion school, many of the students have no intension of getting into the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) or Parson’s School of Design, and that they are simply hobbyists. Quite a few are the kind of people who once dabbled in sewing, often in their childhood, and now want to see if they can get into it again. While I was chatting with Ben, a man who had taken his course came up to him to thank him for the instruction. He complimented him on how thorough he was, and yet how easy to follow. “Thank you for speaking plain English, ” he said. Ben is not the only "Project Runway" alum to spend time at Mood U. There are guest appearances every week. While I was there, Sean Kelly, the winner from a recent "Project Runway" season, was there to help out. It was great to see Ben and Sean joke around together – as Ben put it, “You have to keep things fun when you do things like this. ” He explained that members of the corporate fashion world often come by to take a break from the high-stress professional world and experience the calm, creative atmosphere of Mood U. The school has the same effect on Ben, even though he works there. He told me that no matter how physically drained he feels at the end of a day of teaching, “I head off into my evening recharged and happy. ”
Also known as the Tessler Center for the Arts, or the Chabad Center for Jewish Discovery, NY Hebrew offers an after school program for children ranging in age from pre-school to eighth grade with a curriculum that will broaden their Jewish education. There are mommy and me classes, Torah classes for adults, and senior programs. In addition, the Cotler Mineroff Synagogue is located inside these doors.
A reputable acting school since its opening in 1965, the studio has graduated many a well-known name in the movie and theater world. Based on the techniques that he learned from the famed Sanford Meisner, William Esper went on to found his own school on 37th Street and co-authored a book in 2008, titled The Actor's Art and Craft: William Esper Teaches the Meisner Technique.