The Cummer's Very Special Arts Festival

by Erin Thursby
Our art galleries and museums often do more for our community than we know. The Cummer has a plethora of programs designed to enrich Jacksonville in a number of different ways. One such program, in its 15th year, is the Very Special Arts Festival.
The fest welcomes about 2,400 students from Exceptional Student Education to create art, make music and enjoy the museum’s interactive displays. These students represent a broad spectrum of capabilities, from the visually impaired and children with Downs Syndrome to kids unable to speak or walk.
Almost every part of the Cummer is used. In the gardens, the kids gleefully hold up silk scarves they just painted to dry in the breeze, while volunteers from Episcopal High School assist them. In the Jazz ABZ gallery, they help local jazz musicians create music. The messier artistic processes (paint and clay) are held in classrooms. In the galleries, surrounded by hundreds of years of fine art, they cut out collages and make their own coloring books to take home.
While there are other places in the country that hold similar festivals, the Cummers’ VSA is unique because many of the art stations are within the galleries rather than separated from them.
“We intentionally have the majority of art and music activities in the galleries,” says Cummer Director Hope McMath “so that children with disabilities have the opportunity to create works of art [and] participate in music making…while surrounded by the masterworks in our collection.”
The response and smiles they get from the students is incredible. Ann Roberts, a teacher at Neptune Beach elementary says that the annual event “significantly benefits each and every child, no matter the range of the challenges they face in learning.”
With art programs being cut for regular students, the opportunity for ESE students to have access to the arts can get smaller every year. “Special needs,” says Director McMath, “aren’t always in the art rotation.” Even when they are, most art teachers aren’t particularly equipped to handle special needs students. The fest gives these students the ability to complete projects with adaptive tools made to be easier to handle. While some of the students are not able to grasp a paint brush well, they can use sponges and brushes with short and thick hand holds. In collage, they use textured paper for the visually impaired.
The atmosphere at each of the art stations is jubilant. It is, as McMath calls it, “wild and loud and wonderful.” Despite that, it’s apparent that the fest is smoothly organized and streamlined. As one group leaves a station, another comes in, ready to beat drums, wield paint or shape clay.
Perhaps the heart of the festival is the volunteers. They come from all walks of life–high school and college students, bank tellers, executives and retirees are all part of the mix. About 400 of the volunteers come from Citi Bank, which is also the corporate sponsor for the fest for the 14th year. For the special students, the important part, according to McMath, is that they are “surrounded by people who are there for no other reason than them.”
For Zak, a second year volunteer and student at FSCJ, it’s “like walking through a dream.” He’s rewarded by “the joy on their faces” and moments when he connects with individual students. As he shares a story of gratitude and hugs, it’s clear that it’s an uplifting experience for the volunteers as well as the students who benefit from it.
Director Hope McMath shares the sentiment: “I also feel like the most under told story of the festival is the the impact on those who volunteer. To connect with other human beings in such an intimate way, using art in a beautiful setting is very powerful and those of us lucky enough to work with this program are better people as a result.”