FSSA Art Gallery Gets Turned into Wellness Center

The FSSA Susan Benedetto Art Gallery was recently turned into the FSSA Wellness Center.

When one thinks of Art majors in FSSA (Frank Sinatra School of The Arts) the first thing that comes to mind is the annual Senior Art Shows that occur in the spring. But now that the space once used for the fine art students has become a Wellness Center, where does this leave the art exhibitions?

The handful of gallery openings that occur in the month of May span across each weekend during the final performances and festivals of the school year. The art exhibitions have always taken place in the Susan Benedetto Gallery, (dedicated to Tony Bennett’s wife) on the third floor.

The room to most of the art majors is seen as a hub of creative freedom. For their first three years as students, fine art majors are left to imagine how they will approach having control of every aspect of the gallery in their final months as high school students. 

The art students at FSSA have always felt a bit neglected when it comes to showcasing their artwork. For years, art galleries (really just hanging art in the atrium) occurred for the sole purpose of giving audience members of the performances in the Tony Bennett Concert hall something to do during show intermissions. For every flyer of a performance or festival, art galleries are mentioned in thin, small font, bordering the bold letters that detail the “true” highlight of the evening.

However, the school has changed some aspects of the fine art experience. In 2016, it offered the art department the 1st floor Black Box Theatre to be a space for art presentations during the annual Winter Concert.

The Winter Art Show is open before the concert begins and during intermission. It is curated solely by the art teachers, and only a select collection of works get presented to fit all of the art classes in one room. This is why the Senior Art Galleries in the spring are idolized. It’s curated by the artists themselves. Students get to group with like-minded peers in their classes to design the flow and organization of the room. There is a wide range of possible artworks to showcase. Art Majors get to put whatever they are most proud of up on the orange walls. 

But, as of September 2018, the art gallery in dedication to Susan Benedetto, has been transformed into a Wellness Center, in response to the new wave of NYC public schools creating safe spaces for students.

Ms. Pridgen, FSSA’s assistant principal of guidance, says the need for a wellness center was made clear over the last few years because of the needs of the students.

“The wellness center was very much needed in terms of increasing the wellness of our students because students come here [to guidance] all the time in crisis, having anxiety attacks, upset, but there’s some that won’t come in seeking help because the guidance suite has so many kids in here for different reasons, especially for college applications, or papers, so now they’ve got a place to go. They don’t have to be afraid,” she said.

Ms. Pridgen adds that it was important to have a place for students to de-escalate and be able to relax and just come back to a point where they can go back to class.

“This room was needed based on the number of cases where students were in crisis. There’s always someone there, everyday, every period for students to go to. It’s really impacted the school community in a positive way,” she said.

Some students have mixed feelings about FSSA’s Wellness Center and weigh the benefits of it being both a place to de-stress, but also realizing that it has the potential to become a hang out zone.

“In the guidance office there’s a schedule, ‘Monday it’s this [counselor], Tuesday it’s that [counselor], and so on. I’ve gone before this system came into place, it’s honestly so comforting because you can just sit in the massage chair and just lounge and relax. For it being a Wellness Center it does make you … ‘well.’ And I’ve spoken to other people and they all agree,” Ariella Ruscoll, FSSA Senior Drama Major said.

“We maybe fooled around maybe once, or twice, maybe more, but honestly I don’t think that’s wrong. We can relax and hang out at school together. We’re all there to feel better,” Ariella added.

Amanda Morales, vocal major of Sinatra, has a different perspective.

“It’s definitely become a hang out spot, I mean, I’m guilty of that too, like when I don’t have anything to do I’ll go sit in there, but I feel like it’s actually uncomfortable for people who seriously need it because its branded as a place for emergencies, but there is no privacy,” she said.

Sophie Ming, an FSSA instrumental major agrees that there is no privacy in that space for students who need to express their problems or frustrations.

“I understand why they did it, but it’s just that they didn’t organize it properly. People are obviously taking advantage of this space. ‘Oh I need to go to the Wellness Center’ when they only just wanna get out of class. I’m just wondering how they (School officials) expected it to play out, how they expected it to work. It’s this big room, and its nice, but it’s like, what’s the point? Is it supposed to fit a bunch of crying students,” Sophie asks.

Marina Breger, senior vocal major, sees the positive and negative aspects of the Wellness Center taking over the Art Gallery space. She states that she has been going to the Senior art shows for years because her sister was once an art student and had friends showcasing their work in the space.

“But now I’m assuming the art shows are going to be somewhere else, and if they’re outside of the school I don’t think a lot of people are going to go. Although I’m not an art major I feel really bad because the art is really good and they never get as much chances to show their art when vocal has a show every few weeks.”

The FSSA art majors often think that their studio is the most overlooked in the building.

“Art majors do so much for the school. We practically create the yearbook and sweatshirts ourselves, and now we don’t even have the rights to our own gallery space. We already feel left out from the rest of the school, so it’s heartbreaking they took it away without telling us or giving us other options,” says Natalia Konopski, senior art major.

To gain perspective, Ms. Spata (who has been an art teacher at Frank Sinatra school of the arts for the past 13 years) agrees that FSSA artists deserve their own space. 

“I think the art students deserve a special place for the art show. Maybe a venue in an actual gallery space. As long as the students are very hands on, something with a personal feel. There has to be a show. It has to be figured out. The senior exhibition is very important to the department, where they get to feature their best work. I would like to see there be a way to get a bigger audience for the show,” she said.

Dr. Kahn, who has been teaching at FSSA since its opening in its first location in Long Island City says the space and the shows have both been misinterpreted by the students, however, she agrees that students need a dedicated space to show their work.

“I feel as though over the last several times the kids started to get the wrong idea for what an art show should be. So instead of making an art show, it became more of a hangout. I felt the room was a little abused. I think the space has a lot to do with it. It doesn’t translate well as a gallery space. I think since the room is away from everything it affected the traffic to the gallery. No one really passes there. I don’t blame the kids,” Dr. Kahn said. “I think everyone in the building is fighting for a bit of space, and I would like the art kids to get a deserving place in the building,” Dr. Kahn said.

She also thinks that the art students deserve more.

“I would like higher visibility and respect for the art department. I’d like the school to be more understanding of the work that goes into making art. It’s very time intensive. It requires a lot of discipline. There should be more awareness of the fact that the art department has the highest rate in the whole building of kids who continue to pursue their art form as a career,” she said.

In the meantime, Ms. Pridgen says that the school worked really hard to bring this service to the students and their parents are being receptive to the idea.

“When parents come to tour or visit the school, they are so relieved and appreciative of the fact that this room exists. We are one of the few schools in NYC to have a Wellness Center. It was very hard to get this room to open because they assume just because our students do so well academically that internally they must be fine, that there is only an issue if the grades have been affected,” Ms. Pridgen says.

She also said that the goal is to work toward making the Wellness Center a mental health clinic and have a specialist there, this way FSSA counselors can go back to the guidance suite and there would be consistency in who the kids are being seen on a daily basis.

In the meantime, a balance must be found within the building so that future students get their best experience whether it be their art form or a place to be themselves.

— by Jarline Almonte ’19