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Toi Ora: Making the arts accessible

When we talk about accessibility too often the discussion ends with the basics of food and shelter. But to be a fully accessible society for all we need to consider people in a holistic manner. Providing for physical emotional and spiritual needs can mean different things to different people, and how easily people can get these needs met also varies.

For those who have experienced Mental Health or other issues, accessing something like the Arts comes well down the priority list after shelter, food, medications and other treatments, transportation – all things that cost money in our society. However, it is precisely access to arts and community that people find allows them to live meaningful and fulfilling lives. We need to recognise the importance of having access to community – whether that is arts, sports, spiritual or something else, and that this is a fundamental human right for all.

For some years I have been a part of a community called Toi Ora, both as an artist, tutor and part of the strategic board. Toi Ora is an art space in central Auckland which provides classes across the spectrum of arts for people who have experienced Mental Health or substance abuse issues.

Toi Ora was set up in 1995 by a group of artists with lived experience of Mental Health issues who recognized that an important part of living well was finding something you liked doing and a community to support you to do it. Unlike so much of the health system, particularly those parts dealing with Mental Health, Toi Ora is not about what is wrong in people’s lives, but rather what is right. People are artists, musicians, writers – not whatever label society or the system may have placed upon them.

How Toi Ora works

Toi Ora provides a schedule of regular classes during term times in the visual arts, drama, music, creative writing and more. Members are encouraged to be part of running the studio in volunteer roles. The staff at Toi Ora have either their own personal experiences of unwellness, extensive training in mental health and/or the arts, or both. All tutors are practicing artists, writers or musicians.

Members do not pay to join Toi Ora, and professional-quality materials are provided. People who join are signed up for one or more classes and fill in an enrolment form for each term. When they first join, a staff person will give them an orientation to ensure they understand what is expected of them, including what is appropriate behavior whilst using Toi Ora services.

Toi Ora’s membership criteria are personal experience of mental unwellness, which means a diversity of members both with long-term illnesses, and those who have recently had their first episode of unwellness. Members’ artistic abilities also vary, and Toi Ora is able to cater for a range of levels from absolute beginners to established artists.

There is some provision for space for independent projects to take place alongside classes, and there is also usually at least one artist in residence supported by the Toi Ora Trust. When Toi Ora moved to its current premises in 2009, we acquired gallery space in which to showcase our members’ artwork with regular exhibitions.

A large part of Toi Ora’s funding comes from the Auckland District Health Board, which only covers the central part of Auckland – so we are not able to admit new members who live in the western or southern parts of the Super-City. The service has regular audits to ensure that the DHB is getting “value for money”.

Other sources of funding have come through applying for philanthropic or other grants, usually for specific projects including the Express Yourself youth programme, October Gig, events promoting Mental Health Awareness Week, The Outsider Art Fair and more. Some of these have been organized in conjunction with groups or organisations such as Circability, Mapura studio, Mental Health Foundation, Clubhouse, Studio One Toi Tū and others within both Arts and Health fields.

Safety and accessibility

It can sometimes be challenging to cater for the varied needs and abilities of members in such a way that Toi Ora remains accessible for all. Alongside Mental unwellness there is an element of risk, and Toi Ora has strong policy guidelines for managing this.

All members sign an agreement when they first join to adhere to these guidelines, and if staff notice someone showing signs of potential unwellness they will speak to that member to encourage them to take appropriate steps to look after themselves. Toi Ora is a supportive community, and while not specifically therapy oriented, sometimes people may find that emotional triggers may occur during their time in the studio or classes. When this happens, either peers or staff will usually support the distressed person, and if necessary involve other support people if appropriate.

Tricia’s story

When I first came to Toi Ora around 2001, I was coming out of a period of ill health that had really shaken my confidence. I had dropped out of university and moved back in with my parents. Coming to a couple of classes a week at Toi Ora provided the beginnings of routine, a place to be, and understanding people to connect with.

Quite early in my time at Toi Ora I volunteered to be a member of the Trust Board. Part of the initial deed when Toi Ora was first set up included that the Board should have a percentage of members who had personal lived experience of Mental Health issues and were current members of Toi Ora. I was a part of the Board for several years, including as Chairperson until I stepped down as part of my maternity leave.

When one of the long-term tutors left, I was offered the role of art tutor for the beginners’ painting class, initially as a shared position. I have also filled in tutoring other classes such as Mosaics, Printmaking and Creative Writing and worked as a tutor with groups of young people across various arts as part of the Express Yourself programme (this is not currently running anymore due to lack of available funding)

Over the years I have also has support and opportunities from Toi Ora in various forms. I have been part of group exhibitions and performances both at Toi Ora and other galleries/venues and was able to put together a solo exhibition in 2011. I have also been supported as a delegate to conferences, and supported in learning New Zealand Sign Language, as Toi Ora extended a welcome to the Deaf community with specific workshops and exhibitions.

When my now feisty two-year-old daughter was born, I took maternity leave as a tutor for a year, but during that time stayed in contact with the studio. I even attended a few classes with my baby in tow, recognizing the importance for me of remaining connected with other adults and my own interests as I navigated to first year of my daughter’s life and struggled with mild post-natal depression. I have since returned to tutoring one day a week.

During 2017 I also had the privilege of being a participant on the Be Leadership programme, a leadership programme set over 10 months including some residential components. Participants develop new frames of thinking around leadership through having new and challenging conversations with each other and prominent leaders throughout New Zealand. I was fortunate to be able to attend the programme with my baby (who was 4 months old at the start of the programme) and to be a part of discussions around accessibility for all.


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