Marilyn “Toddy” Richman (left), founder of Institute for Therapy through the Arts, with her daughter and current Board member Elizabeth Richman. Photo by Mitch Dayan

Forty-four years ago the Music Institute of Chicago began employing music therapy to help students with special needs. Under the direction of Evanston resident Marilyn “Toddy” Richman, the program was so successful it grew from a handful of clients to more than a thousand a year – altogether more than 50,000 people – and added dance, drama and art therapies as well as music.

The Institute for Therapy through the Arts (ITA) was spun off from the Music Institute in 2015 as an independent not-for-profit and now is housed in its own building at 2130 Green Bay Rd. in Evanston. Today it is one of the only comprehensive community-based arts therapy programs in the country.

The Institute has 15 clinicians working with clients ranging in age from 3 to 101, said Executive Director Jenni Rook. Clinicians work at the Evanston site as well as more than 30 other locations – including nursing homes, hospitals and schools – throughout the Chicago area.

“The arts are powerful therapeutic tools,” Ms. Rook said. “They can help a person safely embody and work through such serious issues as cognitive impairment, aging complications, trauma, memory, grief and loss, substance abuse, anxiety and depression – all in a non-threatening, non-judgmental environment.”

Ms. Rook majored in music therapy at Western Illinois University and started as a music therapist at the Music Institute in 2005. “I drove all over with a bag of musical instruments visiting nursing homes and special-ed classes, as many as five or six sites a day,” she said. She described how one stroke patient, after a year of extensive rhythm and singing exercises, went from speaking only two phrases to more than 60.

Testimonials from satisfied parents abound. “Nick is able to communicate much better in this world,” said one parent of her son, after he worked with an ITA clinician. “He started in art when [he] had no voice and now sings, loves, plays, and talks to people feeling like he is one of us.”

Another parent wrote: “[Our daughter] has grown by leaps and bounds since working with Amanda. The smiles and interactions doing one-on-one besides group activities is a highlight of her life.”

Council for Jewish Elderly Director Melissa Gelfand said, “Our [ITA] drama therapist has been a valuable part of our program for many years. He’s a skilled therapist and engages clients and staff. We appreciate him very much.”

The founder, Ms. Richman, is a retired drama therapist and Board Member Emeritus of the Institute. “[What ITA does] is important because creative art therapy connects individuals’ emotional intelligence to their innate creativity,” she said. “As opposed to typical therapy, it involves more of the whole person.”

One of the board members, Elizabeth Richman, is Marilyn Richman’s daughter. “What a unique opportunity it is to serve on the board of the organization my mother founded,” she said. “I’m thrilled to put my energy into making it grow stronger.”

The ITA’s annual fundraiser is scheduled for May 2 at the Evanston Art Center, featuring a buffet appetizer and open bar as well as a raffle, silent auction and client performances. Ticket sales and more information are available at

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...