BERKSHIRE EAGLE: CATA has served the Berkshires for 30 years. They’re already planning the next 30.

February 15, 2024—
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Laurie Sunderland sketches her subject before painting at CATA's Great Barrington home.


GREAT BARRINGTON — In 1997, when Eric Schumann started coming to Community Access to the Arts, it was based in a single makeshift studio on Railroad Street.

Students constantly had to reconfigure the room between back-to back workshops.

“So we were always moving tables around,” Schumann, now 65, remembers. At the time, CATA, with its mission to “celebrate the creativity of people with disabilities through the arts,” probably served less than 100 students a year, though they don’t have records from then.

Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, CATA reaches nearly 350 people daily. And the organization has a sprawling home base, where various studios hold courses simultaneously, that’s been designed to meet CATA artists’ needs.

“We see this as a kind of year-long party,” Margaret Keller, CATA’s executive director, said in a recent interview.

Over the course of a year, CATA reaches over 1,000 people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, brain injuries and autism. With ever-expanding workshop offerings including painting, dancing, acting, singing, juggling, filmmaking and drumming, CATA partners with over 50 nearby educational and human service organizations.

“You pick any day of the week, Monday through Friday, any time, and there are workshops happening here at CATA, maybe in creative writing or performing or art. At the exact same time, there could be workshops in 16 towns and cities,” Keller said.

She loves showing off a map of partner organizations, including Berkshire County Arc locations, Berkshire Family and Individual Resources in North Adams and nine school districts.

“Pretty much name a district and it’s likely we’re there,” she added.

Keller thinks that sharing their work with the broader Berkshires community is an integral part of CATA’s work. This year’s programming starts with a March exhibition at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, which will be followed by summer exhibits at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, in Pittsfield, and The Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown.

“Literally every painting on the wall of The Clark is an opportunity to see from the perspective of that individual CATA artist,” Keller said. “And we like to think about how that changes the world.” She then laughed at herself — at the scale of that ambition, at the fact that it feels possible.

“The anniversary is an opportunity for us to celebrate all that we’ve achieved, all our artists have achieved. But also to draw attention to the validity of our mission, to the work that we’re engaged in,” she said. “It’s work we are so excited to carry forward into the next 30 years because we’re not done yet. Our community isn’t done yet.” In the future, she’s focused on growing leadership roles for people with disabilities in CATA.


CATA artist Jeff Kane and faculty member Beth Liebowitz practiced a ballet pose.

CATA artist Jeff Kane and faculty member Beth Liebowitz practiced a ballet pose.



When the new building opened on March 11, 2020, expectations were high. CATA had grown 70 percent in the previous five years and had raised $4.5 million both for construction and program expansions.

But by March 14, it had to shut down due to pandemic restrictions.

“Our artists weren’t able to see friends or to engage in activities that stimulated them and helped them grow and develop and brought joy,” Keller said, noting the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people with disabilities. “And that’s really where we saw CATA’s mission could be so impactful. That we as an organization could make even more of a difference than we already had.”

CATA’s shutdown only lasted a week. No faculty was ever furloughed, leading online workshops from the new building by late March. With new reach came new students. 

When it returned to in-person programming in fall 2021, CATA offered 60 percent more workshops and reached 30 percent more people than it had before the pandemic.

“The growth we experienced during the pandemic is not growth we ever would have put on paper in 2019,” Keller said. “We are bold thinkers but I don’t know if we’d be that bold.”

On a recent Wednesday in late January, every room in the building is busy. “Maybe we’ll outgrow this one day, need a giant mansion,” Schumann half-joked that afternoon.





In a downstairs studios, Laurie Sunderland, 71, and Colin Grossman, 20, shared a studio while working on wildly distinctive projects: Sunderland, a painted portrait of her family from a photograph; Grossman, a playful set of abstract birds on scratch paper.

“I’m an artist myself and I’m still trying to figure out my style,” said Selina Bank, a CATA faculty artist watching them work. The students, on the other hand, have distinct point-of-views. “Getting these big white canvases and seeing what they create is really magical.”

Throughout the two floors, available ledges and wall space are filled with CATA artists’ work, in mediums ranging from felt portraits to sculptures from feathers and recycled plastic.

“Every time Rory finishes a new painting, I think ‘I have to buy it,’” a staff member said, passing one piece.

“That’s an occupational hazard,” Keller responded. The work is available for sale, with a 50 percent commission for the artists; the other half goes to framing and transferring.

That Wednesday morning, there’d been a ton of snow. A salt truck hadn’t made it to the CATA parking lot, so the staff arrived early to shovel and salt the roads. Even through the hazardous conditions, every artist made it for the day.

“CATA is my best place to be,” Cathy Marden, 65, said.

In a music and movement course, she and Kyle Houghtling, 23, wore cymbals on their fingers, creating percussion as they danced through the studio.

Houghtling, a landscape photography pro who’s recently dabbled in sculpture, said he’d describe the people at CATA as “funny and silly.” Wes Buckley, a faculty member, responded, “Hey, what are you talking about!”

“I’m talking about you, Wes!” Houghtling threw back.

In a kitchen and lounge space outside the dance studio, artists from different mediums mingled as they ate their lunch or listened to music.

Executive Director Margaret Keller, admiring an artist’s artwork.

Executive Director Margaret Keller, admiring an artist’s work.

“CATA is the best place to see friends and have fun,” Jeff Kane, 30, said. “It feels so good.”

Scott Thomas, 45, agreed: “It’s a family, the camaraderie. And it broadens your horizons, so to speak.”

Thomas has been particularly acclaimed for his stand-up comedy, though he can’t watch recordings of it. “It’s painful for me in a way!”

Schumann, who always watches his performances back, is incredulous. “That’s how I get better!”

“Well, that’s who I am,” Thomas responded.

There’s an easy rapport between CATA artists, which is useful in their annual performance at Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse. This year’s performance will take place at 5 p.m. May 11, which will also function as a gala, and 1 p.m. on May 12.

Schumann has participated for decades, and it’s particularly meaningful to him.

“Every year, it gets better and better,” he said. “It’s like somebody making a soup and the soup gets better and better.”


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