Span Blog

Manhattan Matchmakers of a Different Kind
By Anita Sarkar
| Category: Education

What do ambitious and talented young artists need most? Perhaps a professional who can be friend, philosopher and guide. A marriage made in heaven? Or, shall we say in Manhattan, where the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) has been running a successful mentorship program for 20 years. The AIGA program falls under the New York City Mentoring Program, part of the city’s Department of Education.

Two young New Yorkers, Anjali Menon and Sabrina Hall, say the most challenging aspect of the job is finding the right match. They are volunteer coordinators of AIGA's mentorship program, who pair mentee and mentor. “Something like matching horoscopes for a marriage,” laughs Anjali, who comes from India. A lot of time and effort goes into studying profiles and making informed decisions about who would be best paired with whom.

AIGA works with the High School of Art and Design in New York City to enroll driven and talented students to its mentoring program. Students are nominated by their teachers and join the program in their sophomore year continuing until graduating from high school. Mentors are industry professionals who can commit to putting in the time and have the ability to connect with their mentees, motivating them to maximize their potential and achieve their goals. They also provide guidance on portfolios, class projects and college applications.

Mentee and mentor meet at least four hours a month over three years. Along the way, the relationship becomes closer. The students, who are in their teens, arguably a vulnerable time, often find in their mentors someone they can confide in even about personal matters. The mentor provides impartial advice and support. What's in it for the mentor? Mentors end up learning a lot about themselves and hone their interpersonal skills. The experience helps them develop their leadership styles. They develop an appreciation of other cultures. They have the satisfaction of making their experience available to a young person. Perhaps they see in their mentees a younger version of themselves and remember a time when they wished someone had stopped by with a word of appreciation of their tentative offerings at the temple of art. What if Picasso's mother had taken one look at his sketches and scoffed, “What's with the three eyes, Pablo? And you've been studying art. Get back to your schoolwork.” Anjali and Sabrina laugh and hasten to correct the impression that parents aren't always supportive of the program. In fact, parents and teachers are integral to its success, often making adjustments in schedules to accommodate meetings and excursions.

Apart from the individual mentee-mentor interactions, there are group activities, visits to museums and workshops. Recently, Anjali and Sabrina coordinated successful courses in website designing and screen printing, something for the artists' 'toolbox.'

At the end of the year, there's a showcasing of projects and a party. “We have budget limitations,” admits Anjali, “but there's always a way out. We get sponsors wherever we can for food, drinks, extras. The space is kindly donated by an 'angel.' It all works out and everyone has a good time.” Some of Manhattan's leading designers and design companies attend and give mentees their perspectives. Last year, Debbie Millman, a well-known designer, writer and educator, guided students in creating very personal pieces as part of her visual storytelling project.

The task of keeping it all together belongs to the coordinators, who are constantly on their cellphones or shooting off emails. The rewards are well worth the effort, agree Anjali and Sabrina. The Manhattan spirit helps.


The Pair That Pairs


Anjali Menon


Having arrived in New York City from Singapore by way of Mumbai, I focused on the one thing I knew well—graphic design. My professors at the time were a great source of learning and guidance for me and I reveled in this new-found experience and environment. Upon graduating with a BFA [bachelor of fine arts] in hand three years later, I found myself in the same boat as many other graduates, job hunting and wondering how best to utilize my time.

After stumbling upon the AIGA Mentoring Program, I decided to give it a try. I was drawn to the fact that it focused solely on design. I recalled how beneficial it was to have professors to guide me through my three years of art school and wanted to pay it forward.

Along the way, my experiences, both personal and professional, have helped me become a better mentor. Currently, my role as Art Director at Coty, a leading fragrance and cosmetics company, sees me designing fragrance packaging for many celebrity and lifestyle brands. I show my students the behind-the-scenes development that goes into the fragrance pack they see on a store shelf. It's an eye-opener.

Sabrina Hall

Volunteering as a co-coordinator of the AIGA program is a wonderful learning experience. You see the immediate effects of the work on the students and the pairs. My goal is to provide students with more information on affordable art schools, scholarships, work opportunities and create an environment in which the pairs can thrive.

The aspects of the program that most excite me are our one-day activity workshops. Most recently we held a silk screening workshop that allowed the students and their mentors to create printed pieces together and helped them bond.

Prior to co-coordinating, I was a mentor in the program for several years. The program caught my eye as it focused primarily on the arts. I loved the idea of working with young students as a way to learn from their experience and to expose myself to new relationships.