An Artful Approach to Community Healing

Guest Correspondence

BY ROXIE JERDE SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY APR 3, 2021

What defines an artistic masterpiece? Some point to technique, others admiration. While the beauty of a piece will always remain in the eye of the beholder, a year of instability across all stages and galleries has underscored another vital aspect to consider: arts’ ability to connect, heal and replenish our spirits. Our local arts community is now fully viewed for how closely tied it is to our physical, emotional and mental health, far exceeding the “enrichment” factor that the arts and cultural sector is most often lauded for. Fortunately, much-needed healing — for us, our community, and our cultural institutions — is underway.

In addition to dispensing medicine and crucial statistics, robots at Sarasota Memorial Hospital are connecting patients with the world beyond. This innovative approach to bridging patient health with emotional connection taken by The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in partnership with Sarasota Memorial Hospital transports patients, many of whom have endured months of isolation and longing for connection, into the museum’s collections with their own personal, mechanical tour guide. Doctors and nurses also partake in social-emotional training led by the cultural institution’s education team in sessions focused on honing observation skills, building teamwork, and cultivating empathy to see each other — patient and health care professional — in a new light.

As this program vividly illustrates, an artful approach to healing is essential to our community’s recovery both during and beyond the coronavirus pandemic. The Community Foundation of Sarasota County cast this idea as the topic during a recent conversation with donors, community members and local arts and cultural nonprofits providing arts-focused wellness efforts across generations.

Leaders from The Ringing, The Sarasota Ballet, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, and Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe guided the discussion that, as you can imagine from a community built around the arts, touched every aspect of our lives – children and families, education, health, culture, even age and connectivity. Common threads and intersections emerged.

While our session was held on-screen, each panelist expressed their relationship with Zoom as love-hate at best, which I think we can all relate to. However, everyone noted that digital access set the stage for levels of engagement and inclusivity previously unseen among audiences and patrons. The Sarasota Ballet’s Dance - The Next Generation leapt into the digital world by supplying every student — especially those who are most at risk of dropping out of school — with a tablet at no cost and providing enrichment opportunities for building self-esteem and lifelong success. The Van Wezel completely shifted its educational curriculum and school-time performances onto an online platform, aptly called “Arts Anywhere,” which has served 38,000 students, parents and teachers to date— 8,000 more than pre-pandemic audiences. Along those same lines, WBTT conducted its Stage of Discovery summer program and high school tours all via video conferencing.

Barriers to access for all ages this year were alleviated by charitable support, including for individuals living with disabilities or aging in place. You can see this unfolding through The Ringling’s Reflections Program serving people with dementia and The Sarasota Ballet’s efforts to empower those with Parkinson’s disease through dance, where long commutes for caretakers have transformed with the click of a button. Another example is the Van Wezel’s partnership with Oak Park School, which adapts drama workshops to engage over 300 students with disabilities. Zoom has also offered ways to support hard-of-hearing populations, such as WBTT’s work to include closed captioning on all its performances.

Of course, our national reckoning with racial injustice and calls for greater equity also took center stage at all these institutions. Recognizing their shared responsibility, each speaker outlined ways to ensure the arts become and remain culturally relevant, sensitive, and inviting to artists and audiences of all backgrounds. As Julie Leach, Executive Director of WBTT, shared: “Arts and storytelling are ideal for helping people build those empathetic skills and understand history in new ways.”

Which brings me back to the beginning of this conversation (which can be viewed here). Each speaker was asked to share one word that they felt encapsulated the last year within the arts community. What was chosen? Ever- Inspiring. Resilient. changing. Essential. I believe our arts community is all the above and a whole encore’s worth more. Because, as Steefel-Moore, head of Educational Programs at The Ringling, so astutely put: “Art reminds us that humanity endures and from tragedy comes things of great beauty and joy.”

Roxie Jerde is President and CEO of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.

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