There are so many charities out there that it can be difficult to choose which one to support. But for style and beauty expert Mary Alice Stephenson, it was obvious.
The fashion icon has been supporting Free Arts NYC and organizing an annual art auction for the past 12 years. The non-profit provides art and mentoring programs to under-served children in the five boroughs. The auction was initially brought to life by a three-woman team consisting of Stephenson, Liz Hopfan, and Amy Sacco and it has since has grown into an industry-supported organization and event. Photographers and artists like Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, Yoko Ono, and Ryan McGinnis have donated pieces for the auction while stars like Naomi Watts and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have hosted the event.
We chatted with Stephenson and stylist Amanda Ross, who’s also a chair member of the auction, about their philanthropic passions, the annual event, and hopes for the future.
So tell us how you became involved with Free Arts NYC.
MAS: My mom was a curator of 20th century art at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, so I grew up being exposed to art at a really young age. It gave me the outlet for creativity and belief that I could express myself. And that gave me the courage to come to New York City and start a career in fashion, even though I didn’t know anyone. When I got here and saw that there were so many kids who weren’t getting the same opportunity I had, it seemed like such a travesty. Free Arts NYC asked me to help and I’ve been involved for 12 years now. Before, it was just Liz, Amy, and I drinking Diet Coke, eating Cheetos, and brainstorming about what to do.
AR: Well, it was really because of Mary Alice! We worked together at Harper’s Bazaar and she was so inspirational. I started supporting by going to the events. I thought it was such a fantastic way to learn about art and such a great cause for the kids. I spent a lot of my Saturdays with the kids. I fell in love with the program. I’m very passionate about spending my Saturdays with them and doing as much as possible. To experience what they feel after having a day of art and creativity is something that’s brought a lot of joy for me. I would do anything for these kids.
I just think art is so personal and it’s not perfunctory. There’s no right or wrong and it’s so subjective. I think it’s also a child’s first real place of form and expression about who they are. It creates a platform for them to execute a vision that they can’t really express anywhere else in their lives.
What has been your favorite moment with the organization?
MAS: I’ll never forget going to the Little Sisters of the Assumption, a center in Harlem, with Roberto Cavalli to make scarves. He came in from Italy, his company sent boxes of material, and Roberto was creating scarves with a group of 25 kids! They just had joy written all over them. It wasn’t just because they created something, but because they made something that they could remember the experience by.
Another one — I’m about six feet tall and in stilettos, I’m a giant. I had to act as Mary-Kate and Ashley’s body guards one time when they were hosting. They were so cool and didn’t come with guards. They’re just so down to earth! The paparazzi literally went crazy. I felt like yelling, ‘Step away!’ I was so protective of them and wanted them to be okay. Honestly, it was like I was their bodyguard trying to get them to a safe haven.
Speaking of the stylish Olsen twins, how did the committee become so fashion-focused?
MAS: A lot of it is based on friendship and people supporting others. People in the fashion community create and express themselves for the world to see and get inspired by. Think back to when today’s designers were young. What would happen if some of the great designers today weren’t allowed to put pencil to paper and draw a dress or didn’t have anyone to support their dream?
How have you seen the organization and auction grow?
AR: Just in the amount of sponsors and people who have jumped on board very gladly. I just think there are a lot of options today when a company is deciding on who they would choose to work with in a charity-related manner. The results are in the schools that participate, kids that want to join every Saturday, sponsors that want to jump on board, people who come to the auction, and artists who donate their work. We get great artists every year; it’s a huge reflection on the organization.
Do you have a favorite piece of art?
AR: That’s a very good question. Well, a very good friend and a favorite artist is Michele Oka Doner. So something from Michele, I would say.
Why are you championing for the arts in public schools?
MAS: We’re in New York City, don’t our kids deserve that? There’s money in New York City, it’s a city that is thriving. And the fact that we’re talking about our kids not getting a general education, poverty, and arts — it’s disgusting. It’s not right, it’s atrocious. You have people making millions and millions of dollars here. This isn’t the Congo, you know? Every kid should have art, be properly fed, and educated. Every single child in the city should be taken care of, that’s our responsibility. Our kids in the public school systems, foster care, shelters, and homeless centers don’t have access to simple things like crayons, paint brushes, and paper here. It’s sad, but true.
We agree! What are your expectations for this year’s auction?
AR: My hope is that we sell all the art and that we bring more joy. It just creates more flexibility and options for us to bring art into the public school system. We’ll have more opportunities and ideas on how to help the organization grow.
MAS: You can really get incredible art and photography at amazing prices while at the same time, supporting the kids in New York City. For me, fashion doesn’t look good or feel good if it’s not doing good. Contrary to popular belief, the fashion industry is not the bitch that most people make it out to be. There are really inspiring people doing great things with art and doing unbelievable things to give back.
I hope that whatever you buy in the future, there will be proceeds that go to making a difference in people’s lives. We will slowly but surely get there. To be able to have something you love and also does good — that seems like the perfect way to shop.
What are some other ways that people can get involved with Free Arts?
MAS: You can buy a ticket to the event, you don’t necessarily have to buy art. You can also get involved by contacting Free Arts NYC to be a weekly mentor. You get paired with kids throughout the academic year, so every week, you get to meet with the children. There are also Free Arts days on Saturdays, festivals, and summer camps so you can become a volunteer.
Learn more about the Free Arts NYC art auction and how you can support a great cause here. And in the meantime, check out some of our favorite pieces up for auction below:
this is some kind of spaceship or something.