Vinette Caroll (1922-2002) The Ghetto Arts Program and Urban Arts Corps


Gotham Center for New York City History, The Graduate Center, City University of New York


Outdoor performance of the musical “Croesus & the Witch”, 1973

(Image courtesy Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations).

Accessed May 14, 2019.


Vinette Caroll. The Ghetto Arts Program and Urban Arts Corps

“The Ghetto Arts Program is conceived of as neither a poverty program nor a therapy program, and it is concerned with very much more than keeping people off the streets in summertime. Ghetto artists need a place to experiment to clarify what they consider valid and relevant to themselves and their communities. They need the opportunity to make mistakes, to forge their own definition of their art.” (Eddy, p. 402)


To rupture the borders built by a history of racial injustice, actor and director, Vinnette Carroll brought art to the streets where young people could unite and through their creative voices and fight for their rights. Although born in the United States, Carrol spent her childhood in Jamaica with her grandparents, reuniting with her parents in Harlem in the 1930’s.[1] Beginning her studies with a BA and continuing with a doctoral in medical psychology from Columbia University; Carroll chose to redirect her path towards the study of performing arts, becoming the first African American to direct on Broadway.  As a woman of color in the performing arts the inequalities between blacks and whites did not go unnoticed. Seeking change in partnership with inspirational women before her, Carroll became a key figure in the Ghetto Arts Program, which later paved the way to her finding the Urban Art Corps (UAC).  


The Ghetto Arts Program began as part of an initiative funded by the New York State Council of the Arts and federally through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The NEA was one of the first federally funded programs that focused directly on providing art for youth in poverty neighborhoods.  The Ghetto Arts Program brought to African-American, Mexican-America, and Puerto Rican youths of Harlem an opportunity to express their artistic voices guided by leaders of their community.


In 1967, Carroll established and became artistic director of the Urban Art Corps, where youths aged 17-22 from public schools and community colleges could collaborate, be inspired and guided by creative professionals. Rather than have performance and the arts come to Harlem, the UAC created a movement where young individuals from Harlem could meet and share their social and cultural heritage with each other and various institutions. It was important to Carroll that the UAC be accessible to the community, which meant involving all institutions and public spaces. Carroll believed that art needed to be where all people shared space, the streets, parks, playgrounds, parking lots, and in prisons, churches, libraries as well as in theatre and art galleries.[2]  Successful community theater companies in the 1970s shared key characteristics in common: “their leaders began careers at social service organizations, day care centers, and high schools. They did not focus exclusively on distinct, privileged performance sites, but rather assumed as desirable the participation of audiences across the entire map of the city. They developed networks from city agencies, YMCAs, settlement houses, acting training programs, and schools. Their priorities blended theories of 1960s racial pride and political subjectivity with a drive to educate young artists to withstand the trials of the arts professions. Most crucially, a focus on communicating the nuances of the deteriorating “urban condition” emerged as central to the process of creation: the streets were not merely their stages, but also their incitement.”

In the New York magazine published in 1968, Carroll said, “The Corps is a way of life, we tell them. If you’re very talented and bright, you have an obligation to the community. Art is not just narcissism- look at me- it’s look at us.”[3] Carroll guided by the need for social inclusion in the arts, created a community for young adults to raise their voices and be heard. Culminating her career as a clinical psychologist, Carroll chose to share her skills within the New York City public school system, where she taught drama at the High School of Performing Arts from 1955 through 1966.


Suggested Reading:

Eddy, Junius. "Government, the Arts, and Ghetto Youth." Public Administration Review 30, no. 4 (1970): 399-408. doi:10.2307/974462.

Hammond, Sally. “Arts in the Ghetto.” New York Post, July 3, 1968.

The Women’s Legacy Project: At the New School for Social Research- New York, NY. “Urban Arts Corp.”

The Women’s Legacy Project: At the New School for Social Research- New York, NY. “Vinnette Carroll Bio.”.


Contributed by: Sherry Babadjanov

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