In 2011, Erin Thomas-Foley, SPARC’s Senior Director of Education, shared a vision for a new, uniquely inclusive arts education program. Her vision was inspired by many years of teaching theater classes, in which she would witness young people with developmental disabilities work hard to become better performers, only to lack opportunities for major performance experiences. She also had seen that typically developing youth sometimes felt afraid and awkward in forming relationships with their peers with disabilities, and young performers often are not encouraged to see their craft through the broader lens of social good.
Determined to change both of these issues, Erin imagined an inclusive arts program that would build performing skills, deepen young people’s ability to accept and connect with each other, and strengthen the personal foundation of each student. Together with the SPARC creative and administrative team, Erin began recruiting exceptional teaching artists, special educators, and nonprofit and civic partners to help bring this vision to life.
LIVE ART’s pilot year began in January 2012, with the first culminating concert event on June 3, 2012, in Richmond’s Carpenter Theatre. Regionally renowned musicians Robbin Thompson, Steve Bassett, Susan Greenbaum, Samson Trinh, Josh Small, and Jesse Harper signed on to perform in the concert event, joined by SPARC alumnus Jason Mraz, who had been quietly collaborating on the project since its inception. The entire pilot program — the joys and trials, the successes and challenges — was captured by documentary film company humanstory, whose feature documentary FROM THE WINGS: THE LIVE ART STORY airs nationally on PBS and won a regional Emmy Award in 2017 for best documentary.
Following the successful pilot, SPARC began assembling the infrastructure to continue LIVE ART. The second program cycle began in January 2013, with the second concert, LIVE ART: TREE OF LIFE, on December 22, 2013. The performance moved to the Altria Theater due primarily to logistical issues, which proved fortuitous: the concert sold out, filling the largest theater on the east coast with over 3,500 seats.
LIVE ART was now becoming successful at both its aims: profoundly influencing students’ lives beyond the program, and inspiring the Richmond community through messages of inclusion. Yearlong classes were now needed for young people, who craved the connection and excitement of the program. Making the jump to annual educational cycles and concert events was a challenging one, both financially and administratively, but SPARC’s key supporters rallied to the cause to help make LIVE ART an annual program.
In the years since, SPARC has continued to add students to the LIVE ART program, build new partnerships with nonprofit and civic organizations, recruit talented and committed guest artists and produce a world-class, inclusive performance to change the lives of our students and the hearts and minds of our community. The annual concert’s themes have been:
- LIVE ART: TREE OF LIFE | December 22, 2013
- LIVE ART: SOUL | June 7, 2015
- LIVE ART: BLUE | June 5, 2016
- LIVE ART: DREAM | June 11, 2017
SPARC’s LIVE ART program has been recognized with numerous awards, including being named one of the eight most exemplary arts events in the last 50 years by the Virginia Commission for the Arts. SPARC’s LIVE ART has also received the Teresa Pollak Prize for Arts Innovation, a regional Emmy Award, and the second favorite charity event in Richmond by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Additionally, Erin Thomas-Foley has been recognized extensively with individual awards for creating and leading this innovative program.