“This is an important time for us as an organization to build infrastructure and invest in our people. There are so many changes going on in our community and in the world, it is our job to always listen and reassess what needs to happen next to enable us to move forward. — Margaret Keller, Executive Director of Community Access to the Arts (CATA)
“I’m known as Teresa’s mother to everyone at Community Access to the Arts,” smiles June Thomas. “CATA is Teresa’s lifeline!” You should see the album she has, dating all the way back to 1993, when Sandy Newman offered the very first dance class.
Executive Director Margaret Keller agrees. “Teresa has a really special relationship with CATA.”
By the time Teresa Thomas was graduating from high school, her older siblings had all gone to college. “CATA College,” as she called it, was a similar move for Teresa as she entered adulthood, giving her the opportunity to help her discover new skills and develop new talents.
June Thomas has been instrumental in promoting the environment. In 1996, while volunteering with Shakespeare & Company, June asked founding director Tina Packer if she could “borrow” some of her actors to work with Teresa and her friends – the start of a partnership that has changed the lives of CATA and its participants. Since then, Teresa has participated in all the programs offered by CATA. “She doesn’t dance anymore,” June explains, “but at nearly 50, she still does everything else.”
Over the past two decades, CATA has changed countless other lives, partnering with 50 community organizations to provide visual and performing arts programs to 800 people with disabilities in Berkshire and Columbia counties, New York. This first dance workshop has grown to more than 1,800 artistic workshops per year.
Bringing in new talent to promote programming
Shakespeare’s Players is one of many workshops offered in a variety of genres and art forms at CATA – and an important tie in bringing Kelly Galvin as a faculty member in August 2021.
Having “cut her teeth” at Shakespeare & Company (where she has been a company member since 2008), Galvin is an accomplished director, producer and teacher at such notable venues as the WAM Theater and the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. She also founded the Platform, an organization that works to create connections through the arts to redistribute cultural resources to a larger portion of the Western Massachusetts community.
Galvin and her husband had lived in Boston and the Berkshires for a decade before moving to Lee in 2020. After years of traveling for work, landing a full-time job at CATA felt like a really aligned fit, spiritually and emotionally – a place where she could have a lasting impact.
For Galvin, the pandemic reality marked a pivotal moment that led her to ask herself, “How am I showing up and using my skills to serve the community in a meaningful way? She saw in CATA an organization on the verge of tremendous growth before the pandemic that was even more needed during the pandemic. “So many artists and CATA partner organizations reached out to us because of the isolation that many people with disabilities have experienced,” she recalls.
Galvin, who sees Shakespeare’s work as a powerful vehicle for self-expression and dealing with the most difficult human emotions, is continually “blown away by the ideas and talents of the artists at CATA and by the way the plays speak of their lives and of the world. “Performing Shakespeare’s work also stretches some people’s assumptions about what artists with disabilities can achieve.
His first big staff event was co-hosting CATA’s annual gala and show in May. “I was immediately struck by the work CATA does,” she says, “the way the faculty cares about, connects and collaborates with CATA artists and how that feeling is shared with the community at wider. »
Galvin describes the moment she and her co-teacher Greg Boover joined the Shakespeare Players on stage as particularly gratifying. “It was the first time they had performed live since pre-Covid, and they returned to a tidal wave of applause, love, support and energy. I understood how they were empowered, uplifted, made stronger. Even after so many years of working in theatre, Galvin described the palpable energy exchange as “breathtaking – there’s nothing quite like it”.
Evolve staff structure for strategic growth
According to Keller, the recent retirement of longtime Artistic Director Dawn Lane has created an opportunity to form a new model of collaboration that recognizes the explosive growth of CATA’s programs. “This new structure is rooted in our relationships with our 50 community partners – residences, day programs, schools and retirement homes.
Smith, a visual artist, oversees partnerships for studio programs in CATA’s new Arts Center (at Jennifer Commons), with two large studios and a smaller studio space. Gagnon, a visual artist who began working with CATA as a college intern, leads school programs, which have nearly doubled in recent years. Galvin’s role is to lead CATA’s programs in partnership with day programs and community organizations; she will also lead performances showcasing the talents of CATA artists, including the annual gala.
“This is an important time for us as an organization to develop infrastructure and invest in our people,” Keller says. “There are so many changes going on in our community and in the world, it’s our job to always listen and reassess what needs to happen next to allow us to move forward.”
As such, CATA plans to offer new workshops, new art forms and new pilot projects as well as adding three new staff positions.
“The countless workshops we offer are all designed to be supported rather than one-off opportunities for our CATA artists, helping them to dig deeper, experiment with new techniques and discover talent in many different genres and art forms. “, emphasizes Keller.
Program partners typically contribute 25% of program costs; the remaining 75% comes from donations.
Scale up – and expand – during a pandemic
“Covid has turned everyone’s life upside down, but I don’t think people have given enough time and attention to how isolated people with disabilities are,” Keller says. Close conversation with CATA’s partners, artists and families during these early days and months of the pandemic was an important call to action, further underscoring the need for new programs and triggering much of the growth. recent from CATA.
CATA partners have responded heroically, Keller says, with direct care staff in particular stepping up to keep people safe. “We needed a lot of technology to deliver services, but we trained, learned and experimented and were quickly able to run virtual classes on Zoom and other platforms.” While many nonprofits furloughed staff and cut programs during the peak period of March to August 2020, CATA has grown, offering 450 completely free programs.
How the nonprofit was able to do this and build a beautiful, fully accessible arts center in Great Barrington is a tribute to the supportive community here in the Berkshires, which generously stepped up in response to an urgent request in May 2020 “It was a powerful and defining moment for all of our careers,” Keller says. “We believe in the power of the arts, but realized the importance of everyday human connection in a new way. It was so vital for our artists to be creative and keep discovering, especially in such a dark time.
[photo/CATA artist with artwork: CATA artist Pat Butler (from BCArc Nu-Opps Brain Injury Program) in CATA’s new visual art studio in Great Barrington with the paper mache mask she created in a recent workshop. Photo courtesy of CATA]
Keller credits their resilience and resurgence to CATA’s dedicated staff, board, partner organizations and donors. “This kind of community support makes us unique – they are all financially invested in our work, which is ultimately an investment in inclusion.”
Before the pandemic, about 75-85% of CATA’s revenue came from donations and grants. This support has now increased to 90%.
Facing critical challenges in planning for the future
For Keller, addressing equity and inclusion is the top priority – and she points to CATA’s partnership with Multicultural BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups through Education) as a way to learn what inclusion looks like and inclusive leadership.
Quoting original CATA founder Sandy Newman, Keller admits, “We’ve worked hard to make everyone feel welcome and included, but there’s still work to be done to create a truly inclusive and equitable community. This development is essential to our growth and our strategic planning for the future.
For more information, visit https://cataarts.org.