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KAWS, Free Arts

Liz Hopfan and KAWS Talk the Power of a Bid for Free Arts NYC

Now through October 30 on Artsy, Free Arts NYC is hosting its Annual Art Auction honoring the artists KAWS and Julia Chiang. The yearly fundraising initiative regularly raises a quarter of its annual revenue, although it goes without saying that there’s added pressure on raising adequate funds this year. While the 2020 edition navigates unchartered waters amid the ongoing pandemic and presidential election, it also becomes exponentially important as arts budgets are slashed throughout the country.

“It is important to know that 70 percent of the New York City arts education budget will be cut in 2021, and access to the healthy escape art-making provides is in jeopardy for the communities we serve,” said Liz Hopfan, Founder and Executive Director of Free Arts NYC. “Support from this auction will enable us to continue providing one-on-one mentorship, career-readiness workshops, portfolio development, and exposure and opportunities into a wide variety of creative paths for our young people.”

Liz Hopfan, Free Arts

Liz Hopfan, courtesy of Free Arts.

To aid in the ongoing support of Free Arts, its creative community can bid on works, products, and experiences by emerging and established artists—like Rashid Johnson, Futura, Julie Curtiss, En Iwamura, Shaniqua Jarvis, Todd James, Joyce Pensato, Ed Ruscha, Josh Sperling, Mika Tajima, Lawrence Weiner, and Jonas Wood—and the event’s honorees KAWS and Julia Chiang.

Special for the auction, too, are pieces by the event’s presenting sponsor Sacai, including three from its collaboration with Nike. All funds raised will benefit the organization’s programming, including one-on-one mentorship, career workshops, portfolio development, and an array of creative opportunities in the arts communities.

KAWS, Free Arts

Free Arts studio visit with KAWS, courtesy of Free Arts.

Whitewall spoke with both Hopfan and KAWS about Free Arts and its current auction, and how to get involved beyond the bid.

WHITEWALL: The current donation-based raffle on Artsy benefits Free Arts to continue its ongoing mission of advancing equity in the arts. Have there been new obstacles for the organization through this difficult time amid the pandemic? 


KAWS, WHAT PARTY, courtesy of the artist and Free Arts.

LIZ HOPFAN: In response to the current climate, Free Arts NYC has adjusted our program strategy to provide alternatives for youth to stay connected to Free Arts, their mentors, and their creativity. Without being able to meet in person since March, we have been sending monthly art kits and “Funbooks” to over 1,600 children in 14 New York City transitional housing sites and other community partners.  We have pivoted programming for our teens who now meet regularly via ZOOM and Google hangouts. We’ve hosted remote artist studio visits, lessons on how to photograph artwork for portfolio submissions, and placed 31 teens in virtual internships at companies including David Zwirner, Penguin Random House, and Fort Standard this summer. We are providing technical resources including tablets, laptops, and WiFi access to those who need it.

WW: Tell us a bit about the support you’ve gained from Brian Donnelly (KAWS) over the years, and what kind of additional support he’s giving you aside from his What Party painting in the auction.

KAWS x Sacai

KAWS x Sacai for Nike, courtesy of Free Arts

LH: KAWS has been a champion of Free Arts NYC for many years, generously hosting studio visits and art-making workshops for our youth. This year has forced all of us to make significant changes and one of those was canceling our Annual Art Auction honoring KAWS and Julia Chiang. As a creative arts organization, we came up with a unique campaign to engage his collectors, raise awareness of our programs, and support our efforts in raising the funds needed to create access and equity within the arts.

WW: Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with Sacai’s Creative Director Chitose Abe and why the brand has donated a pair of shoes for KAWS to draw on to for the auction?

KAWS x Sacai

KAWS x Sacai for Nike, courtesy of Free Arts

LH: We’ve had a relationship with Sacai since they first got involved with our Auction in 2018 when we honored Lawrence Weiner. Chitose Abe is such a visionary within the art and fashion world but more importantly, she is a generous and lovely person who understands how important creativity and collaboration is. Chitose and Brian have known each other since long before Free Arts and anytime I see him he’s wearing Sacai. It made perfect sense for them to be our fashion sponsor for this event.

WW: Nearly 50 percent of Free Arts youth participants are living in shelters. What can the general public do to help?

Free Arts.

Courtesy of Free Arts.

LH: We believe that art is essential to foster creative expression for the children of New York City, no matter the circumstance. The untold burden of the psychological impact of COVID-19 has yet to be fully revealed, a large group of the kids we work with living in transitional housing still do not have the necessary and consistent access to digital resources for this moment. As the back to school season begins and hybrid learning ensues, many of the NYC shelters we work with still do not have reliable WiFi (if any at all) or access to computers, laptops, or iPads to remain connected in our virtual world. In order for us to continue our work and remain connected to our youth, it is critical the general public is aware of the immense digital divide.

To directly support Free Arts NYC in our mission to provide equitable access to art-making at this critical time you can: donate art supplies, books, games, and masks that can be shipped directly to our transitional housing community partners; Drive awareness about what we are doing, on your company website or social media accounts; Donate in-kind and pro-bono assistance with new technology, online classes, and more; and provide financial support for immediate organizational needs so we can continue to serve our youth. 

Free Arts.

Julia Chiang, A Little Bit Tighter, courtesy of Free Arts.

WW: Since 1998, Free Arts NYC has been dedicated to caring for the next generation of young artists, working with over 2,800 kids every year. Can you walk us through the mentoring aspects, and what a volunteer or mentee gets to experience? 

LH: Mentoring looks very different today than it did seven months ago, but the impact on the mentee and mentor is still the same. Our Teen Arts Program provides dynamic opportunities for young people ages 13 to 21 to explore the arts academically and professionally. Teens are paired one-on-one with a mentor who often but not always works in a creative field.

Free Arts.

Courtesy of Free Arts.

Over the course of the school year, pairs meet a few times every month individually and through organized group activities and workshops.  For teens interested in applying to specialized art high schools or colleges, their mentors guide them through the rigorous portfolio process. All teens gain real-world experience through paid summer internships, build their professional networks, and exposure to a wide variety of creative paths.

WW: Do you personally collect art?

LH: I do collect art and almost everything I have on my walls right now is primarily black and white. The majority of my collection has been purchased to support one of our annual auctions. I love that I have had the opportunity to meet many of these artists who have been so generous and supportive of our mission. More so than ever, I am excited to focus on supporting the teens in our programs. I just bought 2 photographs and have commissioned another beautiful young artist to make a work for me.

WW: KAWS, can you tell us a bit about the piece you donated for the auction benefitting Free Arts?  

KAWS: The painting I donated is titled WHAT PARTY. It’s an image that has taken many forms in the past few years and I feel that it communicates my current feelings well.

WW: Tell us a bit about your ongoing support for this organization, and why it’s important to you.

K: The more I get to know Free Arts NYC the more I appreciate what they do. I truly believe in their mission to empower youth through art and mentoring. My hope is that others will be encouraged to volunteer or support the organization in any way possible. I’m honored to have the chance to play a small part in the work that they do.

WW: How does being a father impact your creativity, and how you see accessible art to children?

K: I believe teaching and encouraging creativity to children should be a priority for all kids. Learning to think creatively early on will help children navigate their own directions in life with more openness and understanding.

WW: How has the pandemic impacted your view of the art world and your practice in particular?

K: I travel less and I’m thankful for the time I get to spend with my family.




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Go inside the worlds of Art, Fashion, Design and Lifestyle.


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Go inside the worlds
of Art, Fashion, Design,
and Lifestyle.