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Avenue Road Arts School founder Lola Rasminsky, middle, has been lauded for ‘breaking new ground in arts education for children.’ Instructor Sandra Tarantino works with students Ava Carlucci, left, and Mikaila Robertson at the school in Toronto Feb. 15, 2014.Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

The road to success is usually rough, even harsh – a truth Lola Rasminsky experienced early in the life of Avenue Road Arts School, which she founded just over 20 years ago and which is formally marking that happy fact this weekend.

Mere days after opening in September, 1993, Ms. Rasminsky wandered into the school – a large, converted 1926 house on Avenue Road near St. Clair Avenue West that she'd been renovating after purchasing it in late spring from the Royal Conservatory of Music – to discover it had been broken into.

"Everything was in a state of absolute chaos already," Ms. Rasminsky recalled recently. And now "all our computers were stolen, our fax machine, the photocopier. They even stole the kids' art off the walls!" Adding insult to injury, another break-in occurred one week later.

Today, Ms. Rasminsky, who turns 70 next month, can chuckle at the trauma. After all, ARAS ranks as one of Toronto's great cultural success stories, with about 30 artist/instructors now running 60 programs in visual arts, the performing arts and writing for youngsters and adults. Enrolment totals more than 800 students per semester, almost equally split between adults and kids, compared with the 200 in that first semester in fall 1993.

Retired CBC Radio host Andy Barrie was a teacher and student in the school's earliest days. He taught a magic course for children and took at least three adult classes in singing Broadway show tunes.

"I've always believed that adults have a responsibility to create epiphanies for children or at least get out of their way so they can find their own," Mr. Barrie said earlier this week. "Avenue Road Arts School manufactures epiphanies – by the thousand. Somewhere out there, one of my then-10-year-old students is wowing 'em with a magic trick, employing the poise that was just one of the gifts of [that] amazing place."

Over the years, Ms. Rasminsky has spun off several complementary initiatives, such as Beyond the Box (a variety of arts-themed programs and activities to encourage creativity and innovation in companies and bureaucracies) and Arts for Children and Youth (an outreach program involving around 8,000 students each year in inner-city schools and community centres).

Not bad for a former music teacher who, by her own admission, had virtually no business experience in 1993, little sense of strategic marketing – "no experience organizing anything other than myself."

Ms. Rasminsky had been running a fine arts kindergarten since the late 1970s in the basement of her Forest Hill home. "I didn't love being an employee so I wanted to start something of my own," she said, explaining her motivation in starting the kindergarten. "I also wanted to be home with my kids." Starting with six children, attendance at the kindergarten had grown to more than 100 students a week when zoning authorities told her, in spring, 1993, that her basement couldn't be a school and gave her a week to relocate.

Taking out a mortgage on an attractive but ramshackle house with a mud-floor basement ("It was important for me to have a non-institutional feel") and trying to make a go as a non-accredited, for-profit business was certainly risky.

"Quite a few people warned me that I didn't know what I was doing. Which was absolutely true," Ms. Rasminsky said with a laugh. "If I'd known what I was getting into, I probably wouldn't have done it. Luckily, I didn't, because I have no regrets at all."

In 2007, she was named a member of the Order of Canada, lauded for "breaking new ground in arts education for children."

Back then, ARAS was something of a rarity. Today, it's operating in a field crowded with competitors in neighbourhoods across the city. Nevertheless, ARAS has remained a destination, maintaining its non-institutional vibe, its relatively small class sizes and the high quality of its instruction at the same time as it has formed occasional partnerships with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Indigo Books and Music.

Ms. Rasminsky observes: "For 30 years, I've been driven by the same few and rather simple ideas," the primary one being "everyone needs to feel valued and acknowledged and noticed and supported."

To ensure ARAS is "a great place to get those feelings," she's never stopped striving to hire good people. "Can they inspire students? Are they real artists? Do they have work that students respect, will be moved by? Does their work speak to me?"

Ann Wilson's a believer in ARAS. It has been more than a decade since, while working as an intergovernmental affairs lawyer with Ontario, she took the first of what would be many painting classes in oil and acrylics. "Somebody...said it was good so I decided to try," recalled Ms. Wilson, wife of Rob Prichard, who is chair of the Bank of Montreal and former president of the University of Toronto. "And it was fun, a welcoming place to learn, very non-threatening. I just loved it and kept on."

Doubtless similar testimonials will be offered the afternoon of Feb. 23 when ARAS hosts a 20th anniversary celebration at the Appel Salon in the Toronto Reference Library. Guests include TVO's Steve Paikin, novelist Howard Engel, and artists Charles Pachter and Michael Snow (whose son Aleck, 32 this year, attended the school). Mr. Barrie, who may (or may not) have a trick or two up his sleeve, will play host.

The event will recognize the people who, like Ms. Wilson, had a life-changing experience at the place. After about a year of taking courses at ARAS, she decided to put her legal career on hold to concentrate on painting, thinking she'd soon long to get back to work. It didn't turn out that way, and painting has "now kind of turned into what I do."

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