This Brooklyn Art Gallery Helps Young Adults Clean Up Their Criminal Records

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After years in the art world, working at MOMA and Whitney Museum of American Art, Allison Freedman Weisberg had grown tired with the elitism of the industry, which she doesn’t shy away from calling an “ivory tower.” So in 2009, with that in mind, she opened the collaborative art space Recess, showing any kind of art that made the public feel like participants in the work, rather than just guests passing through. The first thing she launched was “Session,” an initiative to provide artists with a stipend to make work, an artist’s fee, technical support, mentorship and two months to work in the Recess Art space, crafting an evolving work that viewers can visit while in-progress.

Years later, and after launching more initiatives, Weisberg had another brain wave. She discovered that the artists in her programs were making work about criminal justice reform and mass incarceration more than any other theme. “It then felt disingenuous not to collaborate with the folks impacted by one of the most egregious stains of our time,” she told Observer.

Looking to collaborate with court-involved youth and change the “revolving door” system through art, the project “Assembly” launched in 2016 for 18- to 24-year-olds convicted of misdemeanor crimes in Brooklyn. She worked with artist Shaun Leonardo, whose work explores masculinity, criminal justice and race, to design the curriculum. Like the program Session, Weisberg wanted to include audiences and welcome the public to be involved in the creative process. So along with the workshops held every week for eight-week cycles, Assembly also includes a public exhibition space, showcasing what participants make throughout the course of their time there.

The curriculum is a “diversion program,” which can be mandated for an offender by the court. Essentially, it’s form of sentence in which a person who has been arrested takes part in a rehabilitation program intended to help address the behavior that lead to their crime, allowing them to avoid a criminal record.

Weisberg explained that after the court locates a problem in a young adult, diversion can offer a potential solution. But she also believes that in many instances these don’t address all the factors at play. For example, a young person caught with drug possession can be given a diversion program for drug counseling, but this may not get to the problem of their individual circumstance.

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