Arts education advocate receives honour

The Canadian Jewish News
November 22, 2007

Arts education advocate receives honour

By Frances Kraft

TORONTO – Lola Rasminsky says she was an improbable candidate to become a passionate advocate for arts education and the founder of two arts-related businesses, as well as an organization that provides arts programs in low-income areas of Toronto.

Nevertheless, Rasminsky’s work earned her a membership in the Order of Canada earlier this year and a Mayor’s Arts Award that she received Oct. 17 in the Arts for Youth category.

With no formal business background (although she studied economics in university and educated herself by reading and attending public lectures), Rasminsky finds it “quite funny that I’m running two businesses,” she said in an interview at the offices of her non-profit organization, Arts for Children of Toronto (AFC) – an airy 1,200-square-foot space in a downtown, century-old restored tin factory.

A youthful 63, Rasminsky comes across in person as low-key but energetic and articulate, with a sense of humour that is often aimed at herself. “I am, by nature – although you probably wouldn’t guess it – extremely shy, reserved, quiet,” she laughed, adding that she didn’t always have such big ideas.

But she remembers that her late father, Louis Rasminsky – the governor of the Bank of Canada from 1961 to 1973, and an early Order of Canada recipient – often quoted poet Robert Browning, telling her and her brother that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”

A “hugely supportive” parent, he even took time off work and borrowed books from the Bank of Canada library to help her study for a first-year university economics exam.

Her mother, Lyla, who died in 1976, had also wanted to start a children’s arts program, but her plans were cut short when she became ill with cancer, Rasminsky recalled.

After graduating with a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Toronto, Rasminsky began her career teaching music at private schools in the United States and then at Toronto’s Associated Hebrew Schools.

Her first major foray into entrepreneurship, after running a small arts school out of her basement while her two sons were young, was the Avenue Road Arts School, which she established in 1993.

AFC, a separate entity, was an outgrowth of the school.

“It didn’t feel right to me that only children who could afford our fees could have the benefit of some good arts training,” Rasminsky said. She established scholarships to remedy the situation, but she “soon discovered that transportation was a problem for kids from low-income areas, so we decided to go to them [in addition to offering scholarships].”

Of the 12-year-old AFC’s projects, which serve 8,000 children each year, Rasminsky is probably most familiar with a drumming group in the Eglinton Avenue-Keele Street area, where she has spent much time over the past four years.

“When I see this transition from kids who don’t even know they have talent to kids who can give something back, that’s hugely rewarding,” she said, referring not only to their burgeoning skill and public performances, but to the fact that some now serve on the organization’s advisory council and others have gone on to teach in the program.

These days, Rasminsky spends most of her time raising funds for AFC, which last year had a $600,000 budget. The $15,000 in award money she received last month will be used to hire a supply co-ordinator, she said.

“We needed that person. We didn’t know how we were going to pay for it, but we committed to having it anyway.”

But she said she still spends “quite a bit of time” at the school.

“I love seeing the faces of the students when they leave their classes,” she said. “I love seeing the sense of well-being that comes from expressing themselves in a way that they like.”

Rasminsky’s second business, Beyond the Box, provides arts workshops to businesses to foster bonding, improved communication and creative thinking. Her husband, Bob Presner, has taken over as its president.

A project in the works for AFC is a collaboration with JVS Toronto that will combine arts and job training for teenagers.

Although she believes inroads have been made, Rasminsky said she doesn’t think enough people understand the value of an arts education.

“I equate engagement in the arts with engaging the imagination,” she said. “It’s a very empowering place to be.”

Ironically, she said her own exposure to the arts as a child in Ottawa was not, by and large, a positive experience.

Rasminsky describes one childhood piano teacher as a “such a martinet that I would leave my lessons crying.”

Now an accomplished pianist who celebrated her 60th birthday by giving a recital, Rasminsky said that when she became proficient enough to play “really wonderful music, it became its own reward. It just gives you such joy that you want to practise, you want to get better, and you want to be able to play those beautiful pieces.”

Any teachers she hires, however, must bring out the best in students in a supportive way. She insists on it.