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Art-Reach Transforms the Creative and Social Landscape of Philadelphia


Reaching the People Through the Universal Voice

Art-Reach Transforms the Creative and Social Landscape of Philadelphia

Bessam Idani

If a people’s culture can be considered their birthright, as well it should be, and if there is no real debate as to the self-evidence of a people’s ownership of their own culture, then some may be alarmed to realize how dispossessed many of the people actually are of their birthright. The problem of inaccessibility of the arts extends well beyond the tripping bare of our public education system; it touches a wide array of subsets, and can follow them throughout their lives.

There is at least one organization in our community which takes a practical approach to bridging this gap between underserved populations and the fine and performing arts. Art-Reach, a Philadelphia-based non-profit organization approaching 30 years on the scene, takes active measures to bring the arts to those who cannot take it for granted, including people impaired by economic and physical challenges.

We sat down with Marion Young, the Executive Director at Art-Reach, to find out exactly what they are doing to resolve this unique and vital issue.

OMAAT: Tell us about the genesis of Art-Reach. Who got it off the ground?

Art-Reach: Art-Reach was founded in 1986 by Joyce Burd. She modeled it off of a similar program she was involved with previously in Boston.

OM: How did the idea occur to her?

AR: She recognized that many theaters had empty seats at various performances and that there were many within the city who could not afford or did not have access to the arts due to disability and/or cost barriers. She saw a chance to provide a service that would help both the arts community fill seats and bring in new audiences, and under-served communities have better access to the arts. The organization began as part of RHD and then began to expand and became its own 501c3 in 2000.


OM: How would you describe the importance of making the arts available to underprivileged audiences? What can these audiences gain from increased access to the arts?

AR:There are so many great studies that have been done on the benefits of the arts to people from all walks of life and how it can improve quality of life: the pure enjoyment and entertainment of seeing a play or musical within the community of a live audience or experiencing an exhibit at a museum for the first time; including artistic activities within therapy programs to stimulate creativity; hands on art making or musical workshops for individuals with cognitive disabilities; and including writing and art workshops for at-risk youth.

OM: Has it been exciting to see this develop over the years?

AR: Art-Reach has witnessed so many beautiful moments of joy and transformation by bringing our members to cultural activities in Philadelphia. We’ve seen adults with severe brain trauma get up and dance at musical workshops; kids overjoyed after their first play; and individuals who are blind share in the experience of a Rodin exhibit through touch and verbal description.

OM: Tell us a bit about what the organization has accomplished since its inception in 1986. Do you have any particular successes that you think our readers should know about?

AR: Art-Reach has served over 250,000 individuals, which we are very proud of. We partner with over 170 human service agencies and schools in the Greater Philadelphia region and 175 cultural venues and feel strongly about the importance of continuing to be a bridge between those two communities. Art-Reach in partnership with VSA Pennsylvania supports accessible programming as part of the Independence Starts Here program at area theaters through low-cost captioning and audio description equipment and targeted publicity. This program has opened up theatrical performances to hundreds each year who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or low vision. Art-Reach’s In-Facility program makes available a roster of 50 varied individual artists to our member agencies for performances and hands-on workshops and has served over 50,000 since its inception.

However, perhaps more than anything, we are proud of the individual stories that we can share, such as those above. Art-Reach asks for feedback from those we serve so that we can let our cultural partners know how important accessibility is and we receive wonderful and heartfelt messages about how much each individual event, performance, visit and activity meant to those who experienced it. We’ve helped people experience arts for the first time or in new ways. We have individuals each year who attend their first play and others who are attending their 50th with us.

It’s been important to Art-Reach to try and serve as broad a community as possible including people with all forms of disability (physical, sensory, cognitive, developmental) as well as those with economic disadvantages. That breadth of service is something we take seriously and is unique to our region.

OM: Tell us about the projects you have in effect right now, as well as what you have coming up that our readers can look forward to.

AR:One great program that Art-Reach is currently working on in its second year is called Art Connection. This program turns our members into curators, collectors and creators by bringing dynamic and original works of art into their facilities. Staff members and their clients work with Art-Reach to choose a collection of donated works to install permanently at their facilities through a unique process that ensures that the final works that hang on the walls speak to those that will see them every day. Additionally the program is allowing us to partner with other arts organizations such as Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens to install a one-of-a-kind tactile mosaic at Overbrook School for the Blind. Finally, one artist is creating a site specific sculpture developed in consultation with the clients from Bancroft NeuroCenter.

Another great project this year is in partnership with LiveConnections, hosting 5 musical workshops at partner venue World Café Live for individuals with cognitive disabilities. The program also livestreams the workshops so that individuals who cannot travel from each facility also have the ability to enjoy the performances.

Finally, we’re gearing up for an extremely exciting initiative that will help low-income Philadelphians gain wider access to our museums, gardens and historic sites. Stay tuned.


OM: What factors do you think are primarily to blame for certain segments of the population being deprived of access to the arts? How does your organization seek to address these factors?

AR:The primary obstacles are typically cost and physical access problems. Philadelphia’s cultural venues do a wonderful job trying to provide discounts and pay-what-you-can experiences, but ultimately cost remains a significant barrier. Art-Reach works with the cultural venues to target our most vulnerable communities and provide them with free or deeply discounted access. Our cultural partners see that it is a crucial part of their missions as well, and are very generous in their work with us.

Barriers for people with disabilities include physical access needs for individuals in wheelchairs or with walkers or who face other mobility issues as well as sensory barriers such as a lack of captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing, or verbal descriptions and tactile opportunities for those with vision loss. Art-Reach works to promote those opportunities that are fully accessible, as well as to continue to support and educate the cultural community about what more they can do to welcome in these audiences.

I suppose one final barrier is perception. Many individuals with disabilities or economic disadvantages or who face other adversities in their lives don’t see that the arts are something that they can enjoy, that can benefit them, or that welcomes them. Art-Reach’s programs are also meant to help remove that final barrier, to encourage participation in the arts and to inform on its benefits to every individual.

OM: With what organizations is Art-Reach partnered that you'd like our readers to know about as well?

AR: Art-Reach partners with 174 “Member Agencies” – these are organizations that serve people with disabilities and/or economic disadvantages such as human service agencies, schools, shelters, support groups, religious providers, etc. These range from the large (Moss Rehab and Bancroft) to the very small (Creative Kids Club and LOGAN Hope). Additionally, we work with over 175 “Arts Partners” – organizations that pledge free or discounted tickets or admissions. Our cultural partners range from museums and gardens to theaters, live music and dance.

OM: Is anyone else that you know of in this area working toward a similar goal?

AR:There are no other organizations in Philadelphia that do exactly what we do or serve the broad population that we aim to serve, but we do partner with many organizations dedicated to arts education and increasing arts programming as well as many individual artists interested in working with our members.


OM: Tell our readers how they can get involved.

AR:If you know of a human service agency or other organization in your area that serves people with disabilities and/or economic disadvantages tell them about Art-Reach and about the importance of bringing artistic programming to the people they serve. We are always looking to increase the number of Member Agencies that we work with and the people that we can reach.

Artists or art collectors who are interested in donating work to the Art Connection program can find information online. This is a wonderful way to connect to the audiences we serve and make a real impact by donating work that can have an impact on their daily lives.

Finally, Art-Reach is a non-profit organization that exists because of the generous contributions from our region. Donations large and small have a great impact and the results can be seen every day. Donations can be made through our website.

By Bessam Sam
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