In The Tank #3: Matt D’Arrigo

Matt D’Arrigo is Founder and CEO of ARTS (A Reason To Survive), a nationally recognized organization from San Diego that believes in the power of the arts and creativity to transform lives.

I met Matt several years ago through our mutual friend who was helping to mentor a young person involved in ARTS. I learned about the amazing studio center and programming that ARTS had developed for youth across San Diego County, and specifically for youth in need of a transformative outlet for their creativity. ARTS is a place that helps young people transcend some of the toughest challenges of their lives through artistic and creative expression.

In many ways, ARTS is an outgrowth of Matt’s own life, as the arts helped him shift away from self-destructive behaviors and work through significant life issues. A TEDx speaker, Matt sits on the boards of a variety of community, arts and educational organizations, and was one of two San Diego leaders selected for a fellowship to the prestigious Harvard Business School’s “Strategic Perspectives in Non-Profit Management.” Matt speaks, advocates and advises on the use of the arts as a prevention, intervention, and celebration vehicle for at-risk youth.

As Founder and CEO, Matt is gifted at guiding a growing organization while maintaining focus on the reasons for the organization’s existence. And perhaps playing against type, Matt’s leadership style reflects his own personality: thoughtful, determined, level-headed and, to me, seemingly free of drama and histrionics. I always enjoy talking with Matt and learning from his experience and insight.

Q: What inspired you to start ARTS?

A: From an early age I identified as an artist. Although I really struggled in school and other areas of life growing up, I excelled at art. So I would go to my art whenever I needed a boost in confidence, and escape, or to find hope and joy. That time really came for me when I was 19 and my mother and sister were both diagnosed with cancer within a few months of each other. It was devastating and brought with it a lot of emotions that were hard to process: fear, anger, guilt, sadness. So I turned to my art and love of music. I would go up to my bedroom every day, close the door, put on music, and paint. The world would disappear for hours and my whole outlook would transform from despair to hope and joy. It struck me one day after one of those sessions – if it made me feel this way, it would make other kids feel the same way too. I sat down and created a little plan to start an organization that would provide the same experience for other youth facing pain. Just like I had my bedroom to escape to, I wanted to create an ARTS Center – a safe place where kids could come to express themselves and use the arts to transform their lives.

Q: In what ways do you see art reaching kids in ways that other disciplines don’t?

A: The arts are a natural language for youth (and all of us) to communicate and express themselves. When words are hard to come by, art, music, dance, theatre, etc. are an easy way to find your voice and communicate feelings that otherwise may get suppressed. That’s why we offer all forms of the arts; because you never know where a child might find their “voice”. It’s important to give them opportunities and options in various mediums. Besides the value of expression, the arts build self-confidence and esteem, social/emotional well being, and life skills needed to succeed in life. That’s why we not only provide therapeutic arts programming but also formal arts education and career and life preparation so we can meet youth where they are emotionally, developmentally, and artistically and create a long term engagement with them that follows them over time. The longer the engagement, the deeper the impact.

Q: What’s the most challenging thing about running a growing organization?

A: Managing change. We’re constantly evolving and “becoming”. We’re a very creative and entrepreneurial organization. So we need to be proactive and consistent in communicating to all stakeholders – youth, staff, volunteers, donors, etc. why we are going in certain directions or why we are implementing new systems, policies, or procedure to make our work more efficient and effective to serve the youth. Change is hard, uncomfortable, and scary for people so we try not to leave “why” on the table because human nature is to fill in the “why” in yourself and make assumptions. We also try to hire the right people that thrive in a growing environment and embrace change. The other hard part of running a growing organization is keeping that intimate, family feel and continue to build the deep relationships with each youth as we serve larger numbers.

Q: How do you balance the demands of leading an organization with the need and desire to be directly engaged with the kids you serve?

A: This is a constant challenge for me. I remember in year three of the organization I had to make a conscious choice to step back from the front lines of teaching the kids and focus on the business and fundraising aspect because that’s where I felt I could best serve the organization to grow and reach more youth. That is still true today. But with a growing organization I am even more externally focused and traveling a bit more. When I’m in the office I also need to be there to support our senior leadership team and staff. However, I have built in time to constantly walk around the ARTS Center to talk to the kids, teachers, and volunteers. It helps me get the pulse of the organization and feel connected to the kids. I also don’t have an office anymore; I just have my laptop and set up wherever I want in the ARTS Center to be more approachable and accessible to everyone there – especially kids.

Q: What do you wish people realized about the impact of art?

A: The arts impact all of us everyday but we take them for granted. Think about it: everything created by man was first conceptualized and drawn by an artist, right?

The arts bring all of us so much joy everyday – our favorite music, TV shows, or movies. Try to live a day without the arts…almost impossible.

But the arts go so much deeper than that for hundreds of thousands of youth. For these youth who are intrinsically creative, talented, and passionate about the arts, it’s their identity. Yet they are constantly being told in school and society that it’s not important and to fit into these other “boxes” to be successful. So we’re basically telling these youth that THEY are not important. Cutting the arts out of schools and communities is a true form of identity theft – not allowing youth to be their true creative selves and lead fulfilled lives. The results are devastating. We have had students who have literally stopped suicide attempts because of our program, they finally feel accepted and valued for who they are. What’s more impactful that that?