At The Barnes Foundation on a December afternoon, ARTZ Philadelphia founder Susan Shifrin stands to the side of a painting and promises the visitors seated in the gallery — mostly people affected by dementia and their care partners — that for the next hour of the program, they are going to have some fun.
Just like past programs of this format hosted by ARTZ Philadelphia in partnership with local museums and art centers, it begins with the art. The artwork the group is looking at is a large oil painting, the west wall’s centerpiece. Shifrin, leading the program, starts off with the question: When you look at the painting, where do your eyes go first?
One community member raises their hand: the red and yellow hat of the young child. The joy on the child’s face, says another participant. The woman in the large blue dress; the mother’s gaze towards her child. Just there — one of the participants has decided the woman in blue could be a mother, Shifrin notes — let’s explore that more.
The group conversation unfolds completely organically in this way, comments building off of each other or new discussion opened up with a question from Shifrin. There is no right or wrong observation, just as there is no one way someone may participate.
“Participating can be speaking. For people who, because of their illness, can no longer speak, sometimes participants use gestures to explain what they’re seeing or feeling.” — Susan Shiffrin
“Looking at the painting as other people are talking and sort of looking at it differently as each person says something — that’s participating,” says Shifrin. “Participating can also be speaking. For people who, because of their illness, can no longer speak, sometimes participants use gestures to explain what they’re seeing or feeling.”
Creating an environment for people with dementia and their care partners to feel welcome and validated in a public space such as a museum gallery is what this program, ARTZ @ The Museum, is all about.
Restoring a sense of community through art
For 10 years, ARTZ Philly has supported people with dementia and their care partners with programming that includes exploring art together in online communities; mentoring of emerging healthcare professionals by people with dementia; gatherings especially for care partners designed to offer relief outside of a formal support group; art-making workshops for residents in care communities with dementia; and informal group conversations like ARTZ @ The Museum. Since its founding, ARTZ has reached approximately 10,000 people in Greater Philadelphia.
“For us,” Shifrin says, “art, music, dance, movement are the vehicles for restoring a sense of community to people who have often lost their sense of community because of their illness.” Shifrin founded ARTZ after hosting workshops for people with dementia when she was the art educator at the Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College. Seeing visitors — who otherwise didn’t talk much about their experiences — open up in the galleries, where creative expression is centered on the present experience of viewing the art, inspired Shifrin to start the nonprofit.
ARTZ @ The Museum programs like the one at The Barnes, allow people with dementia relief from the daily routine of doctor’s appointments, medications, and worry, and lets them visit a public space without fear of facing stigma. Museum staff do everything possible to ensure that ARTZ community members’ visits are safe, pleasant, and comfortable from the moment they arrive to when they leave. This in turn shows people with dementia and their caregiver that if they visit the museum on a day when ARTZ is not hosting a program, they will be welcomed with open arms.
Don K., a longtime ARTZ @ The Museum participant who lives with dementia, describes how the program has impacted him: “It literally gives me an opportunity to allow my mind to open up and see the world slightly differently — the way somebody else might see the world — through art. I always loved art, but I never studied it … and when I have the opportunity now to look at it and think about it, and think about what it may have meant, what it means to me — these are beautiful open doors to look at and experience.”
Shifrin says the goal for such visits is to also build empathy on the part of museums and art centers. “Our goal is for the institutions we work with to, yes, continue doing programs with us, but also to make sure that our valuing of people we serve rubs off on them,” she says. “And it becomes an absolutely shared dedication.” It’s work that contributes to ARTZ’s mission in Philadelphia becoming a place where people with dementia and their families will be as welcomed as anyone.
In the new year, ARTZ @ The Museum programs at The Barnes will start up again in February. People who wish to participate in any of the programs ARTZ offers can learn more at their website.
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