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TalkWrite: Art and Health

Bernadette Brewer of Toi Ora Arts Trust.
Image from James King’s first solo exhibition Love Letter Bomb in the Toi Ora Gallery.
Renee Liang interviews Bernadette Brewer of Toi Ora Arts Trust about how providing access to the


Renee Liang talks about the intersection between the arts and health and the many ways in which they connect, help and heal.  She interviews Bernadette Brewer of Toi Ora Arts Trust about how providing access to the arts for people with mental illness can bring many benefits and grow a community.

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Every now and then, my two worlds collide, catching me off balance – though I should really stop being so surprised. Everything is connected, after all.  And anyway it wasn’t so very long ago that art and medicine were considered intimately connected.  (I think doctors need to move back towards thinking of their discipline as an art as well as a science, for many reasons – not least so they can rediscover their joy in being doctors – but more about that another time).

Anyway, today I begin a little series in TalkWrite, on some of the wondrous connections between art and health.  Art may not heal as surely as the scalpel, but it can often reach those parts of the body that neither knife nor pill can touch.  And health – or lack of it – has contributed to the genesis of many works that continue to illuminate, inspire and disturb us.

It’s sometimes been hard to convince health workers and their organizations that the arts can be used as a healing salve.  Benefits tend to be over the long term so it’s not easy to study, but the research out there does suggest it’s money well spent.  

Toi Ora is an example of this.  It’s an arts centre, set up to encourage people with mental illness connect with the arts. There’s no set agenda – no therapists saying “art is good for you” – just a whole choice of activities, and a safe space in which to engage and collaborate. And it’s not just for people with mental illness, since Toi Ora also aims to reach out to other creative communitues. I spoke to facilitator Bernadette Brewer about how this model works.

Renee: What sparked the creation of Toi Ora?

Bernadette: Toi Ora Live Art Trust was established 1995. The Trust was the initiative of a group of 15 people consisting of mental health consumer advocates and support workers. At the time there was no organizations that were consumer lead and independent. Sara McCook Weir was the driving force behind the idea, after a personal experience of mental illness in the United Kingdom Sara came to live in New Zealand in 1992 and was a co-founder of the trust.
Renee: What types of programs do you currently run?

Bernadette: We run a broad arts programme format including creative writing, painting, life drawing, printmaking, mosaics, harakeke  weaving, multi media, drama, film making, music recording … and now publishing members’ work is a growing enterprise, check out
Renee: Who can attend these?

Bernadette: Toi Ora is an inclusive art space … the artists are usually people who have had some experience of mental illness at some stage in their lives.
Renee: The space is used by other groups, too.  Who can apply and how?
Bernadette: When classes are not being run, the space is available in the evenings and weekends for workshops, acting rehearsal space, music recording - we have an advanced recording and software system(protools) and a music recording engineer,- it is a wonderful, versatile creative space. We also run Workshops during our term breaks dependent on funding, we like to keep the costs down for members as access to arts training is financially inhibitive.
Renee: What are the guiding principles behind Toi Ora?

Bernadette: Non judgmental, safe, art space to explore your creativity …and build art collaborations, projects, work on skills, develop friendships…
Renee: How is it funded?

Bernadette: We receive about 60% of our core running costs from an Auckland District Health Board contract and raise the other 40% through grants and trust applications. That is only for running costs though…any projects such as exhibitions, book publications, soirees and events, are all funded separately through other funding applications. That’s the tiring part.
Renee: How are you linking with other community groups and how do you plan to work together?
Bernadette: We work with other mental health organizations, and are part of the mental health awareness week committee (MHAW). MHAW organizes wonderful events in Auckland each year to celebrate wellbeing, such as the Fiesta in the Park, and October Gig, two fantastic music events to engage with the wider community. We also actively work with other community mental health centres, and have strong ties within the art sector. Toi Ora is part of the Creative Access Network (CAN), an Auckland  Network which is about accessing art for marginalized groups in our communities. CAN recently held a successful community arts forum at Whitecliffe College which attracted artists and arts workers from around the North Island. It was about showcasing the sector and developing better links, support, and collaborations.
Renee: What are some of the most exciting projects to come out of Toi Ora recently?

Bernadette: We recently relocated and the new space is vibrant and creative. The membership is growing at a rapid pace. We have James King’s first solo exhibition Love Letter Bomb in the Toi Ora Gallery, which has been hugely successful. The book Blue Messiah by Peter Finlay was published last year; a story of one man’s journey and experience of schizophrenia. Eclectic Collection is a recently released CD Compilation of earlier singer/songwriters that had recorded at Toi Ora on previous 4 track equipment., another Poetry book Mosaic and Myth was launched last month,  October Gig 2010 was a fantastic music event, …oh so many things!
Renee: Can you talk about your outreach to other areas and cities?

Bernadette: Our members come from all areas of Auckland, often traveling an hour or so, on the bus to get to Toi Ora. There is a great need for more art spaces such as Toi Ora to be available, and it would be our dream to be able to grow geographically. We have wonderful collaboration with similar organizations around NZ, but there is great demand on Toi Ora to satisfy the need for all the Auckland area. We need one in every corner of our new super city!
Renee:  Who works at Toi Ora and are you looking for any key people at the moment?

Bernadette: We have two full time staff- myself (Arts manager) and Erwin van Asbeck (general manager). We have ten tutors and a part time admin person. And thankfully some amazing volunteers! Where we need support is with the board structure. We would like to grow our board to include a more art and business strength focus. Please contact us at if you know of anyone who is interested!
Renee: How do you intend to grow Toi Ora?

Bernadette: Slowly and steadily! Funding is a big issue, as we are stretched to financial capacity already, but the demand and need for the service continues to increase. We will develop a donor structure/Friends of Toi Ora to attract community participation, and we’re already getting increased hits on our Facebook and website because of our recent activities...  we have been active with the growing community development network in Auckland (in response to the Super City) and we are investigating different models and practice on financial sustainability and collaboration.

Written by

Renee Liang

4 Nov 2010

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.