Focus: Frontline - Arts Interest Group

Graham Willgoss,

WHAT IT IS: A London-based charity that offers people with restricted mobility the opportunity to enjoy the visual arts at first-hand

WHAT IT DOES: Provides beneficiaries with monthly trips to museums and galleries

HOW IT'S FUNDED: Individual donations and grants from local trusts, including the Linbury Trust and the Bridgehouse Estate Trust

"It's not just an intellectually stimulating trip, but a very social experience for people isolated by their disability or old age," says Sheila Fenton, a member of the Arts Interest Group.

Fenton has had Multiple Sclerosis for more than 20 years and has been a member of the Richmond AIG for three years. She first heard about the charity when a friend mentioned it while they were both undergoing physiotherapy.

"I thought she must have her facts wrong, because I couldn't believe there would be an organisation that provides this service," she says.

"I thought it was too good to be true."

For a small charge, AIG provides transport in an accessible minibus between members' doorsteps and the gallery as well as a trained escort to accompany them around the exhibition - although members can bring their own carers, if they prefer.

"All of the volunteers are well trained and in tune with members' needs, practically and emotionally," says Fenton.

"I feel I am in the hands of an expert."

Feeling good

The charity has 110 volunteers who care for about 220 members in total.

It runs a group in each of the London boroughs of Wandsworth, Lambeth, Southwark, Merton, Richmond and Camden.

Fenton says: "Having MS meant that I deteriorated slowly, which hasn't been easy on me or those close to me," she says. "As my mobility became restricted, AIS has become so important to me, because friends aren't always able to meet your needs."

Members receive a quarterly programme and newsletter listing forthcoming exhibitions. AIG visits exhibitions at major galleries or museums in central London with good wheelchair access, including the Tate Modern, Somerset House and the Royal Academy.

Fenton lists the recent Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery among her highlights, although she admits it is difficult to pick one out.

"Whatever your disability is, you lose your confidence, so it's reassuring to be able to get out and enjoy things like I used to, wherever we go," she says.

"It's a combination of stimulation and feeling safe, which is important when you are feeling vulnerable physically. I come back feeling better able to cope, independent and accepted."

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