Local Heroes: Art school founder crosses socio-economic borders

The Village Post
November 2003

Local Heroes:
Art school founder crosses socio-economic borders
by Julie Greco

When Lola Rasminsky began teaching six kindergarten children an integrated arts program in the basement of her Russell Hill Road home, she had no idea how quickly it would grow or the impact art would have on children’s lives.

At that time, Rasminsky, who wanted to teach music after taking her M.A. in philosophy at the University of Toronto, decided to begin the program so she could stay at home with her two children. But soon the graduates of the kindergarten class, which combined music, art and drama, wanted to continue. And their parents also wanted to join in. Before she knew it, she had about 100 students in her home basement every day.

To accommodate the growth, she purchased the property on Avenue Road in 1993, and the Avenue Road Arts School was born.

As soon as you walk into the Avenue Road Arts School, it feels like home. The warm and supportive environment fills every colourful corner of its five studios.

“It had the feeling of a home, and that was important to me,” she says.

The school has gained popularity over the last ten years for its variety of programs, which are targeted to children as young as nine months old, after-school programs for every age, and adult day and night classes. But perhaps what is not as well-known is the many different ways it reaches out and brings arts classes to children who could not otherwise afford them.

The Arts for Children of Toronto program was launched soon after the new school was purchased. The program’s mandate is to provide a high-quality experience in the arts to children regardless of their financial circumstances. Many of the children are selected through programs such as Big Brothers, Jewish Family and Children’s Services, Youth Assisting Youth, The Hospital for Sick Children, or through social workers’ recommendations.

Last year, 100 children, between the ages of three and 17, were on scholarship at the school.

“As the program began to grow, I started to see what a difference it was making to kids and began to recognize that it was meeting a deeper need,” she says.

The deeper need Rasminsky refers to is the need to engage one’s imagination — something she feels strongly about.

“It’s in the imagination that we can make any choices that we want, and being able to choose gives us a sense of who we are and a sense of empowerment,” she says. “In drawing and music, there are many choices to be made. That’s where we get to express our uniqueness.”

“When the children see what they can do, regardless of economic circumstances, they see what they can accomplish and feel good about themselves.”

Two years ago, the school was granted funding to take its arts programs out into the community. The new Outreach program was launched and began to offer arts classes in low-income areas of the city with limited arts programs and in nonprofit organizations that service children and youth with financial, social and language barriers.

During the last year, the program reached 1,000 children of inner city schools, more students through programs offered at a children’s mental health centre, Metro School for the Deaf, Earl’s Court, and aboriginal head start centres.

Rasminksy says she is proud of the way her programs have grown and have reached out to make a difference in people’s lives. “But there’s so much more to do,” she says. “I want to keep going and make a difference to more people.”

Since the school has grown so much over the last ten years, Rasminsky no longer teaches. But she is still there every day overseeing its operations as director of the arts school.

“For the first eight years, I woke up and went to sleep thinking about the school,” she says. “I worked really hard, but I never felt tired. It’s exciting.”

The Jumbo Book of Art, recently published by Kids Can Press, was created by Avenue Road Arts School staff member Irene Luxbacher. Proceeds from the book’s sales help fund Arts for Children of Toronto.

The Village Post salutes Lola Rasminsky and her staff for ten years of enriching the lives of children with the gift of art.