Toi Ora Live Art Trust’s new director, Susanne Ritzenhoff, has hit the ground running, navigating the challenges that COVID-19 poses for the Auckland creative space and its artists.
“I see great value in engaging in the arts whether as an artist or audience member,” she says. “The arts are deeply connected with our wellbeing and Toi Ora provides a creative space for communities to connect.”
In August, when Auckland moved into level 4 lockdown Toi Ora started sending out daily “pick-and-mix” emails with activity ideas for all of its artists.
“Now that the situation continues, we’re moving more towards online classes.” Susanne explains. “For some of our artists, it can be challenging to login and so we talk to them individually, providing support and instructions to help them with things like logging in.”
For artists without a computer or the internet, Toi Ora connects directly with their support workers, who can print out emails or other class information to assist the artists. In addition, Toi Ora is also dialling some of its artists via phone into its online meetings.
“The feedback from Toi Ora artists has been very positive” Susanne says. “One said, ‘I’m so happy to see a different face and hear a different voice!’ In the creative writing class, for example, participants are really appreciating hearing other people’s poems and creative writing. It brings some normality back into their lives.”
Earlier this year, Toi Ora Live Art Trust was granted three years of funding from the Government through Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage’s Creative Spaces Initiative.
Toi Ora will use the funding to expand its programmes, employ more staff and raise its profile in the community.
“We’re expanding what we offer in a number of different ways,” Susanne says. “Firstly, we’re increasing the number of classes in our Grey Lynn premises and strengthening the artistic and wellbeing support we offer our artists.
“And secondly, we’re providing an outreach programme covering the wider Auckland region. To do that, we need to strengthen our profile in the community, and increase the relationships and partnerships we have with other organisations. We’re a small organisation and people don’t necessarily know about us and what we offer, so we’re investing in some communication and partnership development.”
As part of this, Susanne emphasises the importance of good governance structures.
“My philosophy is that the best way Toi Ora can support its artists is by its director working well both with the board of trustees and staff to progress a safe and engaged learning culture.
“Toi Ora supports and encourages people who experience mental health issues. We need to be a strong organisation where the management and tutors are supported to offer their best selves so that the artists to flourish.”
Susanne says this requires several things. “Our tutors know their craft and the artform they’re teaching. They also understand wellbeing and best-practice learning concepts so there’s an environment where everyone can flourish. Toi Ora is a place where I see our artists and tutors creating meaningful art.”
Susanne has a degree in Economics and Business Administration and has held a number of leadership roles in the arts, social services and mental health sectors. She says she understands the importance of inspirational leadership, organisational development and sound financial management coming together for a healthy creative space.
“We need to make sure we’ve got the proper systems and processes in place. That means staying in touch with our funders, adhering to contracts and making sure we deliver what we said we would deliver.”
Toi Ora is embracing the challenges of COVID-19, Susanne says, and she is enjoying the variety her role offers.