Thursday, April 29, 2010

Art-Reach at the Scott Arboretum

Art-Reach held its 2nd annual program celebrating Earth Day on April 23rd.  The Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), an Art-Reach community partner, Associated Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ASB), a long time Art-Reach member agency as well as Art-Reach staff, donors and I embarked on a sensory tour of Scott Arboretum.

Sensory tours are generally given for people who have sensory disabilities. Elements of exhibits, shows or in this case the garden are made available to touch and smell in order to heighten participants’ experience of the event. For people who are blind and receiving descriptions of the place they visit, these tours enhance the narrative and place the descriptions into context of a tangible object.

Scott is a 300-acre arboretum located on the grounds of Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA.  Becky Robert, the Member and Visitor Programs Coordinator, was our knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide.  The tour began at the Scott Entrance Garden whose plants and layout change every year.  Becky passed around clippings from a shrub with a twisty vine.  We learned that when the leaves die in the winter, the vines add interest to the garden.

Touching the plants was a new way for some of us to experience the garden but it was old hat for our friends from ASB. This organization serves people who are blind or visually impaired and ASB is an active member of Art-Reach. Visiting museums and attending performances year round, this group actively seeks sensory tours where tactile elements are incorporated into the experience offering a far more intimate understanding of the featured activity. In this same manner ASB has visited the Philadelphia Zoo, InterAct Theatre Company, Arden Theatre Company and  Enchantment Theatre Company, to name a few.

When we walked over to a majestic pine tree and felt its deep ridges or furrows, HLAA member Diana told me it was “very interesting to feel the flakiness of the bark.” HLAA provides assistance and resources for people with hearing loss and their families to learn how to adjust to living with hearing loss. They have also been an integral community partner in the Independence Starts Here Campaign, bringing many new audience patrons to enjoy the arts in the Philadelphia region.

Our next stop on the sensory tour brought us to a wooden trellis and Becky passed around some Daphne flowers. Mary Ann, who is hard-of hearing, said she liked “flowers and anything visual” the best. Lavera, one of our blind guests, rubbed the flower in between her fingers and smelled her hand instead of smelling the flower directly. This helped her to “get the scent better,” she explained.

The group then trekked over to a beech tree that was a gift from the Swarthmore class of 1881! The gigantic tree was nearly 20 feet in diameter. Betty, a guest from ASB said the bark felt “all ripply, like when you drop a pebble in a pond.”

Acorns crackled beneath our feet as Becky led the group to a red oak tree and then to a sawtooth oak tree. I felt how the sawtooth oak got its name: it has leaves with serrated edges.

“I love lilacs,” Gladys, another ASB member, exclaimed as we got to a cluster of lilac plants. They were the first official plants at the Arboretum. Lavera echoed that they were her favorite plant of the day.  “It smelled like the most pungent hint of lilac from my childhood,” said Betty.

Sensory tours are also highly enjoyable for anyone with a keen interest in better understanding an artistic art medium. Donor Albert Olenzak, both a supporter of Art-Reach and of Scott Arboretum, agreed with Gladys sharing that he especially enjoyed the portion of the tour where he was able to feel and smell the lilacs. “I’m an outdoors person,” he shared. “I thought it [the tour] was great. It was the best time of the season to smell the lilacs and was beautiful.”

We crouched down to feel a green plant nicknamed Lamb’s Ears, which, according to Betty, felt “better than velvet.”  The final two stops on the tour were a dwarf white pine and a traditional pine.

The day ended with a reception at the Wister Education Center. Cosmic Catering provided organic goodies and we all enjoyed each other’s company. Al Olenzak commented that he had not been to Scott for a while and enjoyed seeing the Wister Education Center. “It was a very pleasant event,” Al shared. “I enjoyed the sensory tour, it was very relaxing and beautiful, but I especially enjoyed meeting the folks participating because they were all very interesting.” For Art-Reach members, donors, staff and ambassadors alike, this event was indeed a relaxing way to end a one-of-a-kind nature experience.

~by Danielle Bullen
Danielle is a Special Project Ambassador with the Art-Reach Ambassador Program.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Inside the Mind of a Dancer

Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki featuring dancer Laura Feig
Used with permission from Ballet X

On April 18th, a sunny Sunday morning, families gathered at the Wilma Theater. They were there to attend “Inside the Mind of a Dancer,” a lecture-demonstration presented by Art-Reach Arts Partner organization, Ballet X.

Founded in 2005, “BalletX produces original choreography that expands the vocabulary of classical dance for all audiences.”

Children chattered and anticipation filled the air as co-artistic director, Christine Cox walked on-stage, carrying her young son. This was truly a family affair. Cox began by asking the audience to write down emotions on a slip of paper.  Then 6 of Ballet X’s dancers came on stage and took their places around 2 portable ballet barres. 

Cox explained, “A dancer, everyday, 6 days a week starts by working out at the barre.”  The dancers demonstrated some of the common moves they practice, such as pliés and pirouettes.

Dancing is not as easy as professional dancers make it look.  “A lot is going on in our brains as we warm up,” said Cox. Dancers need to think about the position of all their body parts as they move.

After warm-up exercises, the dancers showed the captive audience some floor routines.  They collected the papers with emotions written on them. Co-artistic director and choreographer Matthew Neenan picked a paper that said “relaxed.”  Neenan then designed a dance and taught it to his fellow dancers. The relaxed ballet told the story of waking up on a lazy Sunday morning.

The audience saw that dancers need a great memory.  Neenan explained they might have 1 or 2 weeks to create and learn a 20-minute ballet. He said, “People don’t realize how quickly we have to come up with movement.”

The dancers then created mini-ballets based on the audience-suggested emotions “excited”, “anxious” and “tired”.

Cox re-emerged and invited the kids in the audience on stage to learn a routine. Young dancers and some parents got up and practiced their 1st positions, their relevés and their arabesques.  To end the family friendly morning, Cox choreographed a routine to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” and everyone danced happily.

Jim and his family attended the event with Art-Reach member, St. Mary Interparochial School.  “My family and I truly enjoyed the performances. Our seats were very close to the stage and this made for a truly memorable afternoon and morning of excellent dancing and informative demonstrations into how a choreographer creates their performances.”

St. Mary Interparochial School has been a long time member of Art-Reach, using the arts creatively to foster family time spent together both during and after school hours. They have found that this approach works to build their school community, increase parent involvement and provide students and their families with fun learning experiences. Jim could not agree more. “I look forward to enjoying many more cultural experiences which are provided by this wonderful program,” says Jim.

After the presentation, Matthew Neenan was kind enough to offer a peek behind the curtain and talk with Art-Reach about Ballet X’s community outreach.

Art-Reach: What are some common misconceptions people have about ballet and dancers?
Matthew Neenan: There’s the misconception it’s a hobby. It’s our job. There are days I don’t feel like doing it, like any job, but I have to do it. Kids don’t realize it’s hard work.  You have to be resilient.

AR: Why is it important for Ballet X to engage in community outreach?
MN:  We have to. Community outreach introduces people to the ballet, develops audiences, and sells tickets. It gets the audience involved. It’s fascinating for adults and children alike. To get grants, we need show outreach efforts.

AR: What inspired Ballet X to create this event?
MN: We wanted to teach about ballet. We’ve done demonstrations before but never for an audience this young. It was kind of an experiment to see if we could hold their attention. We wanted to show toddlers live movement. It’s better for them to see something live than watch TV.  We wanted to do an event at the Wilma. There’s not a bad seat in the house. The audience can really see the dancers for who they are and see the passion and drive very clearly.

AR: What do you hope the audience takes away from the event?
MN: Appreciate the art form, the training, and how smart the dancers are.

~by Danielle Bullen
Danielle is a Special Projects Ambassador with Art-Reach's Ambassador Program

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Keeping customers happy, loyal patrons!

Inclusive customer service for everyone: we all know it is important, but what does it truly look like? How do you do it well and execute it correctly?

Independence Starts Here, in partnership with the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, presents: 

Keys to Quality Customer Service for Seniors and Patrons with Disabilities.
Tuesday, April 20
9:00-11:00am - continental breakfast provided
The Playground, Adrienne Theater
2030 Sansom Street
Philadelphia PA

This free workshop provides the keys to making sure that all customers are treated with respect and that first-time customers become long-term patrons. Mimi Kenney Smith of VSA Arts of Pennsylvania will lead this session, providing a wealth of best practices and attainable, easy action steps to make your venue more accessible and service friendly. Mimi knows her stuff and makes it fun to learn. We hope to see you there!

Register for this FREE workshop at:

Why it Matters:
Serving senior audiences and customers with disabilities provides significant opportunities for the cultural community.  According to a 1998 Department of Labor statistic, more than 20 million families in the U.S. have at least one member with a disability. The estimated buying power for people with disabilities is over a trillion dollars and seniors with disabilities control up to 40% of the personal assets in America. Yet, when speaking with patrons with disabilities, their primary concern is not for the quality of the ramp or the captioning; it is for the quality of the customer service.  This seminar will provide the keys to making sure that all customers are treated with respect and that first-time customers become long-term patrons.

This workshop is presented by Independence Starts Here, a community wide cultural-access initiative led by VSA Arts of Pennsylvania and Art-Reach in partnership with the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and Philadelphia Corporation for Aging as part of Celebrate Arts & Aging.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Careers in the Arts: Meet Mimi Kenney Smith

The oldest of 13 children, Mimi Kenney Smith is used to having a lot of responsibility and being around a lot of people. This comes in handy when working in partnerships with over 100 organizations around the country. As Producing Artistic Director of Amaryllis Theatre Company, Co-Chair of Independence Starts Here and Executive Director of VSA of Pennsylvania, Mimi Smith has certainly embraced many opportunities to pursue an artistic career. 

Mimi takes pride in her ability to figure out how to make things work. She believes problems challenge her imagination and force her to find creative solutions. She employs all of these skills in each of her endeavors. The best advice she would offer anyone who aspires to work in the arts is to “take a chance and be open to the possibilities.” 

From a young age she was interested in painting and sculpting. This led her to begin designing sets and eventually taking the stage as an actress. She balanced her love of theater and art through college taking courses in both, and earning two degrees in Theatre.

Education was very important to launching Mimi’s career. After finishing school, she worked at Villanova as a Public Relations Director. While working for their theater department, she also acted. One production Mimi was a part of at Villanova, All My Sons she considers to be one of her most memorable theater experiences. “It was both a great ensemble and my first standing ovation… I felt like I was in the place in the world that I was meant to be…I thought all right, this is what I’m here for."

It is that conviction that later led her to start her own theater company. What has brought her success with her company is her willingness to take chances. Mimi goes above and beyond to emphasize inclusion and accessibility with each production, making Amaryllis a unique and exceptional theater. It has also led Mimi to take on her many roles with other organizations to share her knowledge and ideas with others. 

To learn more about Amaryllis Theater, Independence Starts Here, and VSA visit:,, and

-by Allison O' Dea
Allison is an Art-Reach Special Projects Ambassador

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Independence Arts Studios offers Spring Session Classes

Independence Arts Studios (IDS), an inclusive artist studio offering classes for persons of every age and ability, has their new spring line up available.  Located at 714 Market Street, IDS offers the following opportunities.

Wheelchair Sculptured Art
Thursdays 1-3 pm, April 29th to June 3rd
Michael Mantis, master jeweler, will be lead students to create an assemblage of various wheelchair parts, put together to create a single piece of arts without welding.

Cast Making for Faces
Tuesdays 1-3pm, May 4th to June 8th
Barbara Gregson, theater artist, will guide students in engaging live models to make plastered casts of the faces of some of the Liberty Resources consumers.

Cost for non IAS members  is $40
Cost for current IAS members is $35

For more information or to register, contact the IAS at 215-634-2000 x333 or send and email to