Students paint a blank canvas at the launch of ProjectArt:Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that provides free arts education to the city's youth. Photo by Ryan Rydzewski.

It’s just like any other art school, except this one doesn’t cost anything to attend.

Oh, and it doesn’t actually have a building.

And its students are four feet tall.

Welcome to ProjectArt, a Brooklyn-based organization that provides free arts education to students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it. Dozens of children, family members and funders packed the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny branch on Wednesday night, celebrating the launch of ProjectArt:Pittsburgh — the nonprofit’s latest “campus.”

“It’s quite monumental,” says Adarsh Alphons, ProjectArt’s founder and director. The organization hopes to serve 10,000 young people in 12 cities by 2021 — making it the largest art school in the country. Alphons hails ProjectArt’s expansion to Pittsburgh as a major step toward reaching that goal.

Founded in 2011 with a bag full of art supplies in a borrowed Harlem office, the nonprofit has grown to include branches throughout New York City, Miami and Detroit. Now, in addition to opening new sites in Chicago and Los Angeles, it aims to serve 135 kids across three Pittsburgh neighborhoods: the North Side, Knoxville and the West End.

“Art is a part of a child’s life unlike anything else,” says Alphons. “It lets them empathize, grow and understand themselves. It lets them know that it’s okay to be in touch with their creative side and to make mistakes. We want kids to spread their creative ways.”

Alphons encouraged ProjectArt’s latest pupils to do just that, inviting students in the room to “make [their] mark on Pittsburgh” by painting a blank canvas with one another. Equipped with brushes, paint and more than a little enthusiasm, Pittsburgh’s newest artists leaped from their seats to get started.

For Shivani Trivedi of the Trivedi Family Foundation — one of ProjectArt:Pittsburgh’s funders, along with The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Jack Buncher Foundation — the moment capped a multi-year effort to bring free art classes to Pittsburgh’s youth. “After meeting with [Alphons], I instantly fell in love with the idea,” she says. “Art, the sciences, math and the humanities are all inextricably connected. If a child is deprived of one, then he or she is deprived of the others.”

Education experts agree. More than four million elementary school students, mostly in low-income schools, don’t receive arts education. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called the situation “an equity issue and a civil rights issue,” on par with access to Advanced Placement courses. And research suggests that arts education helps students develop curiosity, observational skills and the ability to think critically.

ProjectArt:Pittsburgh hopes to remedy this by hiring resident artists to teach three classes per week at the Allegheny, Knoxville and West End branches of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Organizers hope students will take what they learn wherever life takes them — whether they become career artists or not.

After all, says Trivedi, ProjectArt:Pittsburgh is about more than just art: “It’s about laying the foundation for a brighter future.”

Ryan Rydzewski

Ryan Rydzewski is a freelance writer who lives and writes in Lawrenceville, where he reads on his porch and holds up traffic on his bike. Follow him on Twitter @RyanRydzewski