Getting junior into the “right” art class

The Globe and Mail
October 25, 2003

Getting junior into the “right” art class
by Leanne Delap

“I had a dream,” read the e-mail from a girlfriend whose daughter is named after a semi-precious stone, “that I forgot to enroll her in the toddler class at Avenue Road Arts School!”

The integrated arts preschool, just one component of the facility at Avenue Road below St. Clair, is one of the most popular and renowned of its kind in Toronto — and has stirred the blood of the city’s competitive mothers.

Yes, in a certain, cozily privileged sector of the city, forgetting to register one’s budding Picasso would indeed be a nightmare. The school, which offers dozens of courses in everything from life drawing and pottery to musical theatre (for which local preteens must audition), has waiting lists that grow each year. Some of the summer programs are locked down by March.

Ah, the many insecurities of parenthood: It’s no longer the “right” scholastic experience you must provide, it’s also the “right” extracurriculars.

“So this five-year-old kid goes running out the front door to greet his mother,” says the kindergarten teacher, Julie Frost, “and he spreads out his arms and shouts, ‘I’m a Canadian artist.’ ”

After that anecdote, I can no longer concentrate on the clever 3-D trees drying in the top-floor studio. Ms. Frost is explaining how she has “shown the children how trees run through the history of Canadian art,” but I’m too busy fretting about the fact my own children are not yet happily burdened by the information that they, too, can be proud Canadian artists.

The arts school celebrated its 10th anniversary last Sunday afternoon with a party for 300 at the Academy of Spherical Arts in the King West warehouse district. Among kids and art tables was a juicy guest list that cut a broad swath through the elite social communities of the city, including former Ontario premier Bob Rae, film director David Cronenberg, Torstar’s Robert Prichard, actor Susan Coyne, actor/writer Marilyn Lightstone, music man Sam Sniderman and artists Linda Kooluris Dobbs, Michael Snow and Charles Pachter.

In the 25 years since the dynamic Lola Rasminsky left an academic career teaching humanities at York University and classical piano to start teaching arts to preschoolers in her basement, she has built a city institution.

The school, now housed in a sprawling four-level mansion, is literally coated in students’ work. (The wild-coloured, sculptural-relief surfaces in the bathrooms are renovated every year.) On offer are hundreds of integrated arts classes for babies through seniors, from pottery to life drawing to one of the most popular, Broadway Show Tunes (a favourite of CBC Radio’s Andy Barrie, who acted as host of the 10th anniversary party). The house is now filled to capacity with Ms. Rasminsky’s ideas; the popularity of the musical programs has caused her to expand to other local church and community spaces.

The school’s faculty is composed of more than 40 working artists and musicians, and this year about 1,200 students will pass through the doors (about a third of them adults).

The kids have been Ms. Rasminsky’s focus, though, from the early days in her basement. As she expanded, she realized that the school was only reaching the middle-classes. Fees for the programs run from $250 to about $1,000, and supplies can also be expensive, making the classes out of reach for many children. So in 1995, Ms. Rasminsky started offering scholarships for students recommended by social services agencies such as Big Brothers and Youth Assisting Youth. “Then there arose the very expensive problems of transportation,” Ms. Rasminsky says. After all, kids in need are not likely to be able to carpool to Forest Hill.

Three years ago, she established a charitable arm called Arts for Children of Toronto, to implement outreach classes. This year, there are about 2,000 students attending outreach classes in art, music and drama at about 20 public schools, social service agencies and community centres across the city, which pay a highly subsidized rate of about $60 a day to have the programs come to them.

For her Arts for Children board, Ms. Rasminsky drew some heavy hitters. The chairman is John Crow, former governor of the Bank of Canada. He says he was inspired to help out on the project by “Lola’s dynamism, her huge enthusiasm.” His role is to “be the reality guy. To keep an eye on the balance sheets. Lola knows a lot of people, but probably not nearly as many suits as I do.”

The Arts for Children of Toronto board secretary, Bronwyn Drainie, is also editor of the Literary Review of Canada. “Lola has an ability to find the most gifted teachers,” she says. “These teachers go out into the community in the outreach program, and they are real ambassadors for forward-thinking arts education.”

The school also runs a program called Beyond the Box, which brings arts- education workshops to the city’s working stiffs. Ad agencies, actuaries, bankers and MBA students go through workshops with the staff, “allowing themselves to set aside the inner critic and become playful,” Ms. Rasminsky says, “and to look at problems from different perspectives, appreciate what the artist needs to do when creating.”

Meanwhile, on Avenue Road, the kids are starting young. Erica Ehm, a freelance writer and the host of Nestlé’s Baby and You on Rogers television, has a son, Joshua, who just graduated to the nursery class. Ms. Ehm says the classes taught her how to work on art projects with kids. “I am the anti-Martha Stewart,” she says. “I don’t feel very crafty. But I wanted Joshua to be exposed.”

Emma McKay, 11, and her brother Austin, 12, live in Moore Park. They have both attended many different classes at the school, but are now hooked on the musical theatre class. Emma says she was “kind of nervous” about the tryouts for this class, which took place in July. “You don’t hear until August,” Austin says. “You make friends in the class every year” — so the kids want to know who’s made the cut. The class thus far has learned It’s the Hard- Knock Life, from Annie, this year’s play.

Not a bad message, really, for aspiring artists.