For a time spanning around two decades longer than the Harrison Center’s existence, an organization known as VSA Indiana (VSAI) has been spreading the joy of the arts to people of all ages and backgrounds as they have continually sought to make the arts more accessible in downtown Indy.
VSAI was founded in 1982 as Arts Unlimiting, and since 1986 it has been the state affiliate for VSA, an international program of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. From the beginning, VSAI sought to transform the lives of people with disabilities through the creation of art, and they continue to do so today, almost 33 years later.
As an established organization centered on the creation of art in the community, VSAI occupies the southernmost corridor of the Harrison Center. Through its fully accessible classrooms equipped with potter's wheels, a kiln, and every other medium you could imagine, VSAI offers four robust art programs to the Indianapolis community.
Lydia Campbell-Maher, VSAI’s director of Grants and Marketing, described their programming in detail. “At VSAI we do a lot with the community,” she said, “The community art class is probably our most prominent program. This program consists of multi-arts classes open to all ages and abilities. Something that makes us unique is that our studios feature adaptive equipment such as a wheelchair accessible potter’s wheel, and our teachers are trained in adaptive techniques to make sure that the arts are accessible for every student.” Through their community art classes, VSAI serves a lot of people with a broad range of disabilities. Their classes are designed to teach artistic skills, provide a place for people to practice their social skills, and to build self-esteem as well by displaying the work of the students in the gallery space. “A huge goal of ours is to get rid of misconceptions people have regarding people with disabilities, and to really showcase their ability,” Campbell-Maher said.
In addition to the community art class, VSAI also engages in what they call the Urban Artisans program. The Urban Artisans program is a vocational program geared toward workforce development for teens with disabilities. The students are paid a stipend during the school year, and a wage in the summer while also receiving school credit. “This program is actually a paid internship in which the students create art together, and learn the skills needed to get and keep a job,” Campbell-Meyer explained, “This a great program because a lot of the teens will end up in regular employment or enrolling in higher education once they finish working with us.”
Another one of VSAI’s programs, called the Artist in Residence program, is the organization’s farthest reaching. Through the artist in residence program, VSAI works with classroom teachers in schools statewide to enhance art in education for pre-K through grade 12 students with disabilities. The Artist in Residence program also relates well to VSAI’s final program, which is called the Lolly Project. “We have a program that takes place in hospitals too called the Lolly Project,” Campbell-Maher said, “The Lolly Project makes art activities accessible to youth and their families who are being treated in children’s hospitals. Our hope is that these activities increase comfort levels and aid in the recovery process in young patients.”
Through all of their programming, VSAI is doing great work in the Indianapolis community through the arts. If you would like to get to know VSAI a bit better, they also host free art workshops on First Fridays in the Harrison Center. “We want to provide an opportunity for people hoping to see some art, to make some art as well,” Campbell-Maher explained, “These workshops are led by our professional teachings artists from 7:00 to 8:30 and are open to people of all abilities. We want to create a fun way for people to learn about the work VSAI is doing. Everyone’s welcome!”