Ten years ago when I began my career as an arts educator at The Studio Museum in Harlem I didn't imagine the program that would have the most profound impact would be the one in which participants wouldn’t remember most of the material covered. Yet, every Tuesday afternoon participants in Arts & Minds, a 3-year-old visual arts-based program for people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia and their caregivers, have had powerful experiences in the museum's galleries. Indeed, for the twenty men and women who show up each week, remembering artists' names, artwork titles, and historical information is secondary to positive emotional and social experiences and the thrill of creative exploration.
The first program of its kind in Upper Manhattan, Arts & Minds was spearheaded by Dr. James Noble, Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurology at the Taub Institute, Columbia University Medical Center. Dr. Noble was familiar with Alzheimer's programs at other museums in New York City, but noted that there was no such program in Harlem to which he could refer his patients. He partnered with museum education consultant Carolyn Halpin-Healy, who reached out to the Studio Museum to begin a series of programs accessible to people in Harlem and the surrounding area. Arts & Minds, now its own nonprofit organization, operates with a person-focused mission: to provide meaningful art-centered activities in museums, nursing homes, and community centers to create positive cognitive experiences, enhance communication, and reduce isolation.
Over the last three years I've facilitated Arts & Minds, I've come to understand the range of challenging symptoms caused by Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, including memory loss, trouble performing familiar or everyday tasks, changes in behavior, and problems with communication. I am encouraged, however, that visual arts programs like ours are making a difference by providing an engaging gallery and art-making experience that focuses on the present moment.
We engage participants in conversation through inquiry—they are asked questions about what they see, what they think about the artwork, and how it connects to their own experience. I am often immersed in rousing discussions that usually begin with a simple question: "What strikes you about this image?" The gallery dialogue is rich and fueled by a safe environment where participants are free to express their thoughts and questions—all without judgment. The conversation moves from the galleries to the studio space where participants create artwork using sophisticated materials—a far cry from a typical "arts and crafts" activity.
The benefits of the program for the participants are many, including improved mood, less anxiety, a break from the daily challenges of living with dementia, a sense of accomplishment, and a feeling of belonging. While some participants may not remember what was discussed during the program, the positive emotions carry over well after the program ends. One participant recently remarked, "It has energized me. It has re-opened my creativity…and my own confidence." Another gentleman, who regularly attends Arts & Minds stated, "We can say what we feel here."
Everyone in the museum is invested in making these positive experiences happen, from the visitor services staff welcoming them to the Museum to the museum educator leading the program session. But the meaningful experiences taking place wouldn’t be possible at Art & Minds—or other museums across the country—without funding and support from the community. If you’re interested in getting involved, become a member of a museum or make a donation in support of access programs at your favorite museum. You can also inquire about volunteer opportunities where you can lend a helping hand during programs while enjoying the creative process yourself.
This post is part of the GOOD community's 50 Building Blocks of Citizenship—weekly steps to being an active, engaged global citizen. This week: Become a Member of a Cultural Institution. Follow along and join the conversation at good.is/citizenship and on Twitter at #goodcitizen.
Image courtesy of Arts & Minds