A NYSSSA student works with a 16mm Bolex film camera in 2018. (image courtesy Ghen Dennis)

For thousands of New York high schoolers without access to comprehensive arts education, the New York State Summer School of the Arts (NYSSSA) is not just a summer camp — it’s an experimental program that fosters a lifelong passion for the arts. Now, the state-funded equitable arts intensive is on the verge of disappearing in favor of a new scholarship program, and students, alumni, teachers, parents, and others are gathering support to save it.

Since NYSSSA’s founding in 1970, the competitive monthlong intensive has provided scores of students with vital education in dance, film and media, visual arts, theater, and choral studies led by a roster of visiting faculty and artists. Hosted at rotating state college and university campuses like Alfred State College, SUNY Fredonia, and Skidmore College, the “pre-professional” residency annually hosts between 350 and 400 high schoolers of all economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds from around New York, giving them access to college-level curricula that are often only accessible at expensive private schools.

According to the New York State Education Department, 33% of NYSSSA students on average require tuition aid to attend the program, which costs a flat rate of $2,500 and includes on-campus housing, amenities, and daily meals. NYSSSA’s statistics indicate that 75% of these students receive full scholarships.

Now, supporters worry that a new program privatizing public education funds could pose an existential threat to NYSSSA. Advocates are gathering support through testimonials, phone calls, and written letters to elected officials ahead of the next New York State Board of Regents meeting on September 11 and 12, where a key vote on a surplus in the State Education Department’s budget could help sustain the program for next summer.

NYSSSA theater students pose for a photograph in 1983. (image courtesy NYSSSA Theater)

After NYSSSA was forced to adopt a virtual platform in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was not funded in 2022 and again in 2023, with the state instead shifting resources toward the Empire State Summer Arts Scholarship Program (ESSASP). The latter issues need-based grants ranging between $250 and $5,000 for middle and high school students to attend existing private regional arts programs, but NYSSSA advocates argue that these scholarships do not provide the same equitable support.

ESSASP grants, unlike NYSSSA, cover up to 90% of tuition costs and do not include housing, transportation, meals, and other amenities usually required to attend these private programs. This distinction is crucial for students coming from families who are unable to afford the high costs of tuition and amenities at other youth arts programs that stand as alternative options in NYSSA’s absence, offered by schools including the School of Visual Arts, Hofstra, Parsons School of Design, Cooper Union, Columbia University, and New York University

“Our argument is that the [ESSASP] scholarship should exist in addition to the NYSSSA program because both of them are providing need-based scholarships for students,” Ghen Dennis, artistic director of NYSSSA’s Media Arts Program, told Hyperallergic.

“However, NYSSSA has a level playing field,” Dennis continued, explaining that because ESSASP scholarships are capped at $5,000 and at most cover 90% of tuition fees, many students are unable to afford the remaining tuition, housing, and amenity costs.

“The scholarship program kind of privileges people that have physical access to the programs in the first place,” Dennis expressed, pointing out that many of the state’s recognized youth arts programs are centered around New York City.

Officials from the New York State Education Department, Office of Cultural Education, and Board of Regents declined Hyperallergic‘s request for comment.

2020 Gordon Parks Scholar Cydney Blitzer installs a series of self-portraits exploring her identity as an adoptee, a theme she continued to explore in her education at NYU. (photo by and courtesy Saskia Kahn)

Taylor Dunne, an assistant professor of Film Studies at Keene State College, explained to Hyperallergic that for someone like her who grew up over three hours away from the city, many arts programs can feel inaccessible. Raised in Delaware County in a single-parent household 200% below the poverty line, Dunne recalled that without a robust arts curriculum in her public high school, she had to explore filmmaking on her own, experimenting with stop-motion techniques using a camera lent by a teacher.

“Being able to attend NYSSSA for me was seriously and literally life-changing,” Dunne told Hyperallergic. At the encouragement of a teacher, Dunne applied to NYSSSA’s media arts program. She attended the summer arts school for two years in the early 2000s, where she explored 16-millimeter filmmaking and quickly “fell in love” with trailblazing artists like Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren. Dunne noted how being introduced to experimental work at NYSSSA inspired her to pursue a film degree at the New School.

“As a first-generation student from this really rural and economically depressed background, I really feel like I beat the odds, and it wouldn’t have happened without NYSSSA,” Dunne concluded. “It just wouldn’t.”

In a video posted by Dennis, who is one of the NYSSSA campaign’s leading organizers alongside alumni and other faculty, many students who attended the program share similar stories to Dunne’s that explain how crucial it was in altering their life course. For filmmaker Chassidy David, who spent all four years of high school combatting homelessness in New York City, NYSSSA provided a “safe space” that allowed her to “just be a teenager and to make art.” David continued her arts education at Boston’s Emerson College, where she studied filmmaking. She also returned to the program as an alumna to teach digital arts.

Viewers interact with Tori Wicksall’s final photography project, Deconstruction of Identity during NYSSSA’s annual end-of-summer reception. (photo by and courtesy Saskia Kahn)

Visual artist Rachel Fein-Smolinski similarly returned after participating as a high school student and said the program was “integral” to her professional development, adding that its absence two summers in a row means that students are being “robbed of resources that could scaffold their careers.”

“NYSSSA is all about equity and excellence,” playwright Cynthia Cooper, who taught in NYSSSA’s theater program, also told Hyperallergic in an email. “As of now, 800 talented students have missed opportunities for excellent arts education in the past two years, and that includes 266 equity candidates whose families come from economically marginalized circumstances.”

During the July Board of Regents meeting, member Roger Tilles identified a “positive balance” of $1.7 million dollars in the Education Department’s budget. Advocates want this money to fund NYSSSA and reinstate its in-person programming for next year, and are calling for a $2 million baseline commitment from the state to maintain it for years to come. In next week’s meeting, the Board will vote on what to do with this budget carryover, and by extension, on the future of NYSSSA as a program.

Maya Pontone (she/her) is a Staff News Writer at Hyperallergic. Originally from Northern New Jersey, she currently resides in Brooklyn, where she covers daily news, both within and outside New York City....

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