Victor Ngo-Smith had dreamed of opening a music and arts school for years. On June 15, he signed a lease for a space where he could finally bring his vision to life. Building renovations began just a few days later, and by August 2, Ngo-Smith was teaching his first class at his very own school, New Cottage Arts.
"It's been a really fast process," he admits, but with a combination of hard work and determination, along with the support of his family and husband, Ngo-Smith was able to pull it off.
Originally from Las Vegas, Ngo-Smith moved to Denver about five years ago after graduating from Northwestern University and Juilliard. After a brief stint working in Denver restaurants owned by his uncle, Ngo-Smith taught piano lessons privately and in schools for several years. However, his experiences in schools weren't always positive, and he worried that teaching in his studio or at his students' homes caused them to miss out on the communal aspect of the arts world.
"It just started to get a bit isolating, because I wanted to connect more deeply with the community, and also offer more than I could myself, because I just teach piano," he says.
Ngo-Smith has always felt a deep appreciation for visual art and has spent much of his time in Denver going to museums and attending galleries. All of that inspired New Cottage Arts' focus on both musical and visual arts. In addition to a keyboard lab, private practice studios, an ensemble room and an art classroom, the school will have a gallery space open to the public with rotating work from Denver artists.
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Ngo-Smith met many of the artists who will teach or show their pieces at New Cottage Arts through Annie Decamp, a local artist who also happens to be Ngo-Smith's yoga teacher. After seeing her work hung up in her studio, he invited her to be a part of New Cottage Arts, and she was happy to oblige and connect him with other members of the art community.
He found other music teachers through community outreach. With his staff — all hired after he had secured New Cottage Arts' location, in the span of a month — Ngo-Smith was able to expand his musical offerings from piano only to voice, guitar, ukulele, drums, clarinet, violin and more, as well as visual art. He aims to make New Cottage Arts a "teacher-focused" space, where instructors are treated with kindness, compassion, respect and appreciation — which he found lacking in traditional schools where he previously worked. Inspired by employee-owned companies, he hopes to empower his teachers as much as his students.
Ngo-Smith deliberately picked New Cottage Arts' location on Federal Boulevard to expand the music and arts presence in the area. While working at restaurants in the neighborhood, he noticed that the vibrant music and arts scene that he loved was largely absent. So when it came to finding a home for New Cottage Arts, he simply drove up and down Federal, searching for spaces available for lease, until he found a building in the Little Saigon Business District that used to belong to a shipping and cargo company.
The location is in close proximity to Athmar Park and Westwood, both neighborhoods with populations over 70 percent Latino, as well as the Vietnamese-American community of the Little Saigon district and southwest Denver. Catering to a diverse community was paramount to Ngo-Smith, since the mission of New Cottage Arts is "to bring music and art to everyone." This also means having a diverse group of teachers and showcasing artists from different backgrounds.
"The goal is to provide a space where the community can receive the best instruction and have the most fun and rewarding experiences in music and art, in a space that celebrates art in all forms, and having it be a center, a hub, of generously producing music and art," says Ngo-Smith.
While establishing an art and music school in an area where none existed makes the art world more physically accessible, Ngo-Smith is also working to make art and music more financially accessible to potential students.
"We are trying to keep the costs fair, but also keeping it fair for the teachers, and doing that juggling act the best we can." he says.
Ngo-Smith is also "aggressively searching for funding" to provide scholarships for local students to attend New Cottage Arts. He has just submitted his first grant proposal, which would provide five students from the 80219 zip code full scholarships to attend New Cottage Arts for a year. Additionally, New Cottage offers a payment plan, by which people can pay half of the class fee up front and the other half in the middle of the course.
New Cottage Arts will have offerings for all ages, from toddlers to senior citizens. While some classes are specific to age or skill level, others will be open to a mix of ages. The suggestion came from Jen Starling, one of the school's art teachers, after having had positive experiences teaching mixed-age groups in the past. Offering mixed-age courses also allows families to take classes together, giving them a chance to bond over art and music.
To encourage potential students to sign up for classes, New Cottage Arts is holding a free open house for the public on Saturday, August 24. Guests will be able to meet teachers and featured gallery artists, take free mini classes, sign up for lessons and explore the space. The open house will be a community affair, sponsored by neighborhood business association BuCu West, with catered food from Mujeres Emprendedoras made from ingredients provided by Re:Vision's Westwood Food Cooperative.
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When asked where he sees New Cottage Arts in the future, Ngo-Smith is full of ideas. While he would love to continue to open art and music centers in underserved neighborhoods, he also hopes to expand New Cottage Arts to include a recording studio and a performance space to produce special events.
But the most important thing for him is to preserve the spirit of community connection that is the foundation of New Cottage Arts: "I think that there has to be a balance in trying to expand opportunity but also trying to keep it casual and friendly and face-to-face, because that's very much part of my personality. I hope to be able to offer services where there is a need, and then have that community fulfill its own needs by getting teachers that are local and featuring artists that are nearby."
New Cottage Arts' all-ages open house will run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, August 24, at 655 South Federal Boulevard. You can also register for classes or private lessons, which vary in price, online. Private lessons require a phone call or an in-person visit as well, in order to best match students with the right teacher.