Empowerment Through Art
24 February 2014 at 9:37 am
With a passion for art as well as for teaching, Arts Manager Melanie Cass has been armed with the right mix of skills to lead a successful Not for Profit arts program for people with and without a disability. Cass is this week’s Changemaker.
Melanie Cass says she has always been passionate about art and as a child always had a creative project on the go.
She studied the necessary subjects throughout high school, but was always drawn to the Arts, completing four Arts subjects in VCE. Cass went on to study a Bachelor of Visual Arts at Monash University, with a part-time job teaching art in primary schools after hours. This is where the love of teaching came from.
After completing her degree, Cass obtained a Diploma of Education from the University of Melbourne and was fortunate enough to be hired by a well-regarded independent school in her first year out of university.
After six years at that school she began working for EDAR Arts, which now comes under Yooralla’s umbrella. EDAR Arts’ mission is to promote empowerment through expression and to provide a professional and uniquely supportive environment for artists with and without disability.
Last year, Cass’s work with EDAR Arts gained her a nomination for the Westpac Community leaders award under the category – Start-up Not for Profit Executive.
What are you currently working on in your organisation?
Currently I am working on sourcing exciting and engaging opportunities for the artists to participate in.
Throughout the art courses artists choose to enrol in, a myriad of skills are gained and techniques explored.
These skills and techniques are beneficial not only in developing independent art practice but also building confidence and developing their communication skills further.
I am finding avenues whereby the artists can utilise their growing skills in the mainstream arena, which promotes social inclusion and greater education about those living with a disability.
Through the EDAR Arts School Connections Workshops, students of all year levels work together with the artists in a fun, engaging and at times challenging manner.
Through art-based activities, students and artists problem solve and use various forms of communication to create works of art. We have visited three schools last year and I am currently trying to encourage other schools to participate in this extraordinary experience.
Through education and exposure, children are given the opportunity to become more comfortable and appreciate the differences and similarities they share with those living with a disability.
Together we are breaking down misconceptions, diminishing fears and building tolerance in the community.
I am also currently working on creating partnerships in both the art industry and corporate sector in order to open doors to employment, mentorship and ultimately, independence for people living with a disability.
What drew you to the Not for Profit sector?
I had never considered entering into the Not for Profit sector, not to say that I discounted it.
I worked for an independent girls school for six years and through my responsibilities as a coordinator I started to find various Not for Profit organisations that my students could become involved in through their community service work.
During those years, I established wonderful connections and gained such a level of respect for those who worked in the sector, together with those people the sector provided a service for. In particular, EDAR, a disability service in Balwyn. I met a remarkably passionate team and inspirational customers whom they worked for.
When I decided to leave my teaching job and find a new challenge, I was asked to come on board and head up the arts venture; what became EDAR Arts.
How long have you been working in the not for profit sector?
I have worked in the NFP sector for a year now. Starting in January 2013.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
Working with the artists. Whilst I teach them art techniques, introduce them to new materials and guide them through the art industry, they are ultimately the ones who teach me on a daily basis.
Everything about my teaching practice had to be adapted to work with adults who live with a disability.
New ways of communicating, different approaches to handling materials, becoming much more explicit in my instruction, and sourcing resources that would be of benefit to the artists' progress.
The artists and my work have rewarded me with new skills, appreciation for learning and a greater sense of purpose.
Having a hand in further empowering people and providing them with the opportunity to communicate and gain independence is the most rewarding part of my work.
What has been the most challenging part of your work?
Some people do not believe me when I say that teaching people with a disability is one of the easiest parts of my work. While my practice has changed somewhat, I feel that it comes naturally to me.
Numbers, figures and budgets have been the most challenging part of my work! Coming from a teaching position at an independent school I had the skills to teach and coordinate, and was highly organised. However, as a teacher I wasn’t given the responsibility to handle budgets, marketing, strategic planning or learn skills that would help me build and run a business.
I had no idea what margins referred to and it wasn’t ideal that my Microsoft Excel skills were almost non-existent.
In a year working for this organisation, with various finance gurus asking a million questions, (and blinking away the occasional tear) I have learnt a phenomenal range of new skills.
I welcome the challenge and hope to become more confident and proficient in this area of the business.
What do you like best about working in your current organisation?
“Rock and Roll” Mel! These were some of the first words said to me by the CEO at the time.
She allowed my colleague and I freedom, gave us all the support and trust to come up with unique, somewhat unorthodox and seemingly impossible ideas.
Whilst we have recently merged with Yooralla, the same freedoms and encouragement have been given to myself and the team in order to revolutionise service delivery and provide opportunities to our customers that will see them successful in the avenue’s they choose to explore.
I have help from Yooralla’s marketing, finance, fundraising and infrastructure teams to build the business according to my initial philosophy, but in a more efficient way and at a more accelerated pace.
Through your work, what is your ultimate dream?
My ultimate dream is to have a purpose-built workshop and gallery space that will see music, visual and performance art come together in a spectacular celebration of the art and the community.
It would provide world class materials and equipment, purpose built studio spaces, theatres, an extraordinary gallery space. It would be a hub of excitement, creativity and a place of possibilities.
EDAR Arts is determined to promote and establish a community which is inclusive of all. This centre of excellence would see workshops that had artists of all abilities working alongside each other, it would be non-judgmental, non-segregated and most importantly, provide empowerment through expression.
What (who) inspires you?
Every day I am inspired by the artists I work with, my team of facilitators and, in particular, a gentleman named Stuart. Stuart has turned everything I once thought about people with disability and the industry upside down.
He has challenged the way that I think for the better and mentored me to become a better person and practitioner.
Stuart is working towards improving and revolutionising the disability sector and I cannot wait until he achieves his goal.
The people we work for will be given the rights, opportunities and respect every person should be given in life.