It might appear to be out of place, the gleaming-white art school nestled in the heart of skid row and its ever-growing population. Nevertheless, Inner-City Arts has been a beacon of light for up to 10,000 children who pass through its wrought-iron gates each year, offering students from urban public schools the chance to explore their potential — and possible careers — through the arts, learning from top-notch professionals along the way.
And for those never knew Inner-City Arts existed, well, President and CEO Bob Smiland doesn’t hold it against you.
Smiland, who grew up and lived for 45 years in the idyllic, well-groomed suburbs surrounding Pasadena, never gave much thought either to inner-city students living a mere eight miles from the City of Roses, until he came to helm the downtown nonprofit organization. Only then, he realized, those children’s experience is really a world away.
“I’ve learned how devastating life is for so many people in our inner city. Students come here from very tough situations, violence and hunger and poverty,” Smiland said. “Our students come hungry, and we feed them. We see a great deal of trauma from all types of violence, and we comfort them — so our work here is very different than happens anywhere else in the country. But the arts make our students very, very happy. It changes their lives.”
Helming the $5 million nonprofit has changed Smiland’s life, too. He moved from his longtime home in South Pasadena to a renovated loft in downtown Los Angeles. He’s become active in Union Rescue Mission and tries to care for his school’s homeless neighbors, although “that’s getting harder as the numbers keep multiplying.”
Smiland, a former paint manufacturer, decided about 15 years ago that he was ready for a career shift. Beginning at age 22, he’d dedicated his life to his father’s paint company, eventually growing the modest business into an $88 million corporation. A few years later, he sought out a job hunter to find him work in the nonprofit industry, preferably with schools or students in some capacity.
“The guy told me, ‘Bob, no one is ever going to hire a corporate guy like you,’ but I said, ‘I’m here, and I’m really dedicated, I really want to do this,’” he recalled, chuckling. “Finally he came upon Inner-City Arts, and said, ‘Well, this place might be stupid enough to talk to you.’”
Nearly 14 interviews later, the nonprofit took a chance on Smiland.
“And here we are, seven years and a lifetime later,” he said, sitting down to discuss his work at the 10,000-square-foot campus, a former auto body shop on Kohler Street. “I can tell you this: Managing a $5 million nonprofit is considerably more stress and work than my [at its peak] $100 million business ever was — no comparison.”
Inner-City Arts might be called the Noah’s Ark of DTLA: Its founder, artist and educator Bob Bates, had a vision to build an art space for children while he was meditating back in the late 1970s, when budget cuts had eliminated arts instruction in L.A.’s public schools. After forging ahead with a business partner to build an inaugural space, the nonprofit was able to create an enduring partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District. To date, Inner-City Arts has served more than 200,000 students and 10,000 teachers in the L.A. area. Bates remains as an educator at the school and has helped inspire countless children over the years. Of the 6,500 students served in 2018, about 89% are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, with about 94% students of color and 37% considered to be English language learners.
Smiland has taken the reins at Inner-City Arts full force, with the help of what he called a “hands-on” board of directors and 40 full-time staff members, most of whom are also professional, working artists. He aims to grow the budget this year to $5.3 million and implement an ambitious three-year strategy to expand the school’s reach, doubling its enrollment in three years and expanding to a new campus, located closer to public schools and offering more classes to the same children in a deeper, sequential programming manner.
Those who’ve known Smiland for years say the businessman and former football player (who won a full scholarship to play on the offensive line at Cal Berkeley and graduated with a degree in sociology), has hit his stride in his second career.
“It’s almost as if this is where Bob was always meant to be, he is so comfortable in this position,” noted Pasadena resident Lois Madison, who met Smiland some 25 years ago in the Young Presidents’ Organization. “Even though he had run his father’s company so diligently and successfully, it really wasn’t him. When he got to Inner-City Arts it was like he found his niche finally; he became young all over again. The enthusiasm and pride of ownership just shines when he talks about the school and what he’s doing there.”
Smiland’s hands-on methods have also proved effective, said Madison, who, along with her husband, Chris, has become an important donor to the school’s scholarship fund for students going on to college.
The decision to donate funding to the school was easy after they saw it firsthand, she said.
“I saw something much more than children just drawing there, they were completely redirecting children that otherwise could go in a very negative direction. … It was so inspiring to see these young people. Here they were, learning about themselves, sharing their hopes and dreams for the future through their artistic expression.”
Chris Madison seconded that idea, expressing joy at working with the students at Inner-City Arts.
“Our work with the school has been a wonderful experience,” said Madison, who recently helped to brainstorm an art project with students through the Carnegie Institute. “This school is a jewel within Los Angeles that not everybody knows about — institutions like this should be more available to kids who are trying to get ahead in the arts world.”
South Pasadena High School Principal Janet Anderson, who grew up with Smiland and attended school with him, noted that she was not surprised when he sold his commercial business and shifted careers. Smiland had been the youngest-ever elected school board member of the South Pasadena Unified School District back in the day, she added.
“Bob has evolved his interests in many ways over the years, so his sale of his family’s company and move into other fields did not come as a big surprise. He likes to give back and has used his background in business to be successful in developing schools that provide rich arts education — it wasn’t surprising at all, it was almost an evolution,” Anderson said. “Bob was a student leader in school and has always been someone people respect and enjoy. He has a great sense of humor, and his ability to connect with people is a valuable asset as he builds his nonprofit organizations.”
That commitment, Smiland admitted, has led to some really meaningful exchanges. He helped guide one young high-schooler through Inner-City Arts’ internship program, then took him to the bank to set up an account to cash his first check. When the two had to return to the bank the next day, the young man brought along his mother and four siblings, none of whom had ever been inside a bank before.
“That was a pretty incredible moment,” Smiland recalls.
But that’s not what keeps pushing him forward: “My aim, my No. 1 goal, is to spread the word of how important arts programming is for students everywhere, but especially for young people impacted by trauma and poverty,” he said. “I’m the first to admit, before I came here, I did not understand the value of the arts in young people’s lives, especially for this population. It motivates me every day.”
To learn more about Inner-City Arts and its programs, visit inner-cityarts.org.