OnRamp@Sunset: Integrating Arts into Technology

Victoria Bernal
December 11, 2000

OnRamp@Sunset began in 1998, in a storage room with 10 kids huddled around one computer with a very slow connection to the Internet. Now, OnRamp lives in an historic fire station in Echo Park and has taught over 500 kids how to use digital technology as their canvas for creative expression. The kids no longer huddle around one slow computer. OnRamp now boasts a graphics production studio, computer lab and arts studio, with 22 computer work stations—each with a high-speed internet connection.

Putting the Arts First
 The growth of the program is a testament to its unusual emphasis on developing artists and creative thinkers first, and technology producers second. The two founders have built and sustained relationships with a diverse group of organizations and companies. These partnerships allow OnRamp to offer a wide range of youth programs for the neighborhood.

Through partnerships with the Central City Action Committee, UCLA Department of Design and Media, Open Studio Los Angeles and others, OnRamp has received donations of computers, services and even furniture in addition to financial support. As a result, OnRamp staff were able to purchase up-to-date equipment for their computer lab. "These students have hand-me-down everything, we wanted them to have a first-class computer lab," says OnRamp's co-director Jessica Irish.

Artists teach students how to handle multimedia equipment such as video cameras, image scanners and high-end graphic software programs. "When I first started at OnRamp, I only knew a little data-entry, and now within a year I learned Photoshop, Quarkexpress, and now I'm starting Web design...and that got me excited to learn more," says one student.

Building Partnerships
Many students come to OnRamp by way of the Central City Action Committee (CCAC), an Echo Park youth service organization located in the same firehouse station. In fact, OnRamp's first home was inside a former CCAC storage room. Co-directors Jessica Irish and Stephen Metts cleared out the room and hooked up the first computer inside. The organizations have continued their close working relationship as CCAC staff encourage their students to take advantage of OnRamp's facilities. "We've never had to spend money on outreach because kids can just walk down the street or up the stairs," Irish notes. "Because we were in such close proximity to CCAC, it was as simple as opening the doors to let the kids in."

The partnership with the UCLA Department of Design provides a different benefit: artists and technology trainers from the department who lead and participate in student workshops. Irish, who also works for UCLA's Department of Design, has been the bridge between OnRamp's high school students and UCLA's undergraduate and graduate students. The Department of Design students appreciate the chance to apply their academic knowledge in a community program that shares similar language and perspectives regarding art and technology.

This combination of art and technology, at the heart of OnRamp's program, can be a challenge when it comes to courting funders and potential partners. "Funders will ask us, 'Do you focus on education or the arts? Do you focus on arts or technology?' I respond, 'Why can't we focus on all three?' And the funders respond, 'Because we only have one category that you can apply to,'" says Irish. "Because we serve both youth and adult artists, and produce artistic work and provide technology access, it's easy for potential partners to misunderstand our responsibilities in a partnership."

For Irish and Metts, it all starts with the art. They believe strongly that the arts are key to developing a holistic technology program for students. That's different from most new media programs, which usually emphasize the technical aspects of digital media production. Developing a student's artistic sense helps them better manipulate images, sound, animation, graphics, and video—important skills in a multimedia environment. And sometimes, it's just plain fun. As one OnRamp student commented, "I like coming here and showing the other kids how to use the computers and the artistic things that you can do with computers."

Multimedia Explorations
OnRamp helps students use these new skills to explore their diverse community. Located about five minutes north of downtown Los Angeles, Echo Park is a low-income community, with a primarily Latino population. Ninety percent of OnRamp students live in families with incomes below the poverty line and about a third are participating in OnRamp as part of court-ordered community service. These young artists have uncovered their community's rich history through a variety of OnRamp projects.

One OnRamp project, titled Turning from the Millennium, brought together high school students from Echo Park and South Central Los Angeles to work with artists, architects and UCLA design students to explore these two communities. The final art work was a multimedia Web site that combined all the students' videos, audio recordings and historic photographs. Visitors use a map to navigate the neighborhoods. Clicking on a particular site opens up a student-created project about that location. In one digital video, a student stands in front of the Belmont Tunnel, discussing its prominent role in LA's public transportation in the early part of the century. As Los Angeles evolved into a city of cars, the former rail tunnel evolved into a gallery for local and international graffiti artists. Now, the tunnel serves as a playing field for a game local youth call "Aztec soccer," a game that combines soccer and jai alai.

As for the educational value of the project, students who created Turning from the Millennium not only learned basic design principles and graphic computer programs, but also became familiar with urban planning principles, architectural terms and Echo Park history. One student said the project "showed me how to really look at the community, because before I didn't really look at it."

The skills students learn at OnRamp may be the literacy of tomorrow. As more people communicate through broadband technologies, students will be expected to be proficient in using video, sound, images and text to create meaning. The arts have always nurtured this type of multi-sensory communication. By combining arts and technology, OnRamp is empowering youth to use digital media to express their creativity as well as to reflect their community and culture.

OnRamp is one of three partners in the Open Studio/LA project. Open Studio: The Arts Online is a national project of the Benton Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. OnRamp@Sunset worked with Visual Communications and LA Freewaves to provide free technology training for artists and arts organization in the Los Angeles area.

Articles and Case Studies Related to Art, Youth and Technology

  • A New Class of Art
    Read about the New Media Program at Gilbert High School in Arizona, that brings students together with artists, photographers and writers to develop new media projects. The story chronicles the broadening of the New Media program to teach students to produce digital stories.
  • Artists Take It to the Chicago Streets
    This Connect for Kids article discusses the development of the Chicago's Street-Level Youth Media program, which became one of the first organizations in the country to offer urban youth access to new technology. This program teaches media literacy and production skills to kids so that these kids can show their own points of view.

Additional Resources

  • How to Establish an Arts Program in Your Community
    Published by Americans for the Arts, this resource can help those interest in building an arts program in their neighborhoods.
  • YouthLearn.org
    Hosted by the Morino Institute, the YouthLearn Web site provides resources and information for organizations providing technology services for youth.
  • Arts and Youth Development feature
    In this Connect for Kids feature, learn why the arts are so important to youth development, and how you can help keep the arts alive for kids in your community.

Victoria Bernal is formerly a project associate for the Benton Foundation's OpenStudio.