Art / Education

Casita Maria’s executive director says goodbye

Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education

Sarah Calderon with her Casita Kids.

Iconic Longwood arts group will look for new director

Change is coming at the top for Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education. Sarah Calderon, who had been the organization’s executive director for seven years, stepped down in October.

Under Calderon’s leadership, the iconic organization on Simpston St. has thrived.  It added eight new educational programs and six new arts programs during her tenure and now serves 1,500 children and teens every day, compared with about 200 daily before she joined.

With Calderon, 40, at the helm, the group’s annual budget more than doubled to 3.2 million dollars: its funding comes from the city and from foundations and individual donors.  Free curriculum for students of all ages was added, including visual and performing arts, music, high school and college prep courses and summer camps, and after school programs were expanded to include students from across the South Bronx and Harlem.

Though her tenure was productive, Calderon said she wishes neighborhood kids would connect more with their community and their history.  She hopes the cultural landmarks Casita helped create as part of its ambitious South Bronx Cultural Trail will help young people recognize their neighborhood’s character.  Casita graduates have gone on to produce famous artists, musicians, dancers and poets—but also lawyers, doctors and other professionals, she pointed out.

“You name it, we’ve produced it and wonderful beings in general,” said Calderon.  “Wonderful families and mothers and fathers.  And I think our youth don’t know that or appreciate it as much as they should.”

Casita launched the Culture Trail to highlight the area’s heritage, providing markers to indicate sites where  jazz, salsa and hip hop were played, and where the graffiti art the neighborhood is famous for was splashed.

“It really serves as a way to tell the community about how great they are,” she said.

While the board of trustees searches for Calderon’s replacement, Casita’s director of development, David Dean, will serve as acting head.

Calderon, who grew up in Hempstead on Long Island, has family ties to the South Bronx.  A trained artist with a master’s degree in education from Harvard, she founded Stickball Printmedia Arts, an East Harlem-based  arts group, in 2005. The group offers printmaking and digital arts workshops for students, and is now part of Casita Maria. Three years later Casita hired her to consult on its strategic plan. As a result of that work, Calderon said, she fell in love with the mission and the community.

Apparently the admiration was mutual. She was hired to run the organization when the consultancy ended.

The organization’s longtime programs director, Marta Rivera—a ‘Casita kid’ herself— said that although people know the name Casita Maria, it’s rare people know what the organization actually does. One of the group’s key objectives is to get families and the community more involved in bettering the neighborhood, said Rivera, adding that Calderon brought art to residents.

Last year, Casita brought Grammy-winning Latin jazz musician and educator Arturo O’Farrill to Hunts Point for a performance. Bringing Latin jazz to untraditional venues like a local boxing gym and the Hunts Point Ave. subway station are part of Calderon’s legacy of innovation, she said.

“We go out to places that nobody else would go,” said Rivera.

Though Calderon took a position as managing director of ArtPlace America, which aims to fuse arts organizations and contributing artists with communities, she insists she will continue to volunteer her time to help out in Hunts Point.

“It’s unbelievably special,” she said. “I’m in awe all the time about the talent that has come from this community.”

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply