Art museums have invested a lot of time and money in recent years to become more welcoming and hospitable to local audiences. But many say they still have a big blind spot: older visitors.
Identifying and reducing ageism is at the heart of EA Michelson Philanthropy’s new initiative, the Vitality Arts Project for Art Museums. The Art Education Foundation of Minneapolis is providing over $2 million over 18 months to nine major museums to support creative aging programs for visitors age 55 and older.
“We just have to move beyond an age-related attitude and start thinking about how we can integrate older adults more equitably into our lives,” Ellen Michelson, the foundation’s founder and president, told Artnet News.
Extensive research results not only indicate that dealing with art can have significant effects health benefits— including for older adults — but demographic projections show American seniors will soon outnumbered Persons under the age of 18. This means museums need to transform their programs and educational offerings, as data from the American Alliance of Museums shows institutions are currently spending three quarters of its $2 billion in annual education funding for programs for students and younger.
The foundation has previously invested more than $15 million in creative aging programs at cultural institutions across the United States, but is doubling down with its largest and most prestigious cohort of art museums to date: the Brooklyn Museum, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, New Orleans Museum of Art, Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
“Many of our older adults have lived lives of isolation and loneliness for many years,” Michelson noted. “Sharing a quality art class with other people gives the adult the opportunity to meet new people and connect with those people through a shared experience.”
The scholarships require institutions to hire experienced, professional art teachers to work with older adults, and the foundation advocates “sequential” and “armed” curriculums, “where the student advances each week and builds on the skills they have learned in the learned last week”. Classes end with a public performance or exhibition, depending on the medium, which reinforces participants’ roles as artists worth celebrating.
LACMA, one of the grantees, already had some programs that tended to attract older visitors. According to Naima Keith, vice president of education and public programs, the museum has programmatically focused much more on young people than older adults.
“There’s a lot to do,” she said.
The museum plans to use its grant to bring in an advisor to help the team identify gaps in its programming, launch new initiatives, and develop a better understanding internally of “how ageism permeates our spaces, consciously and unconsciously.” remarked Keith.
Another grantee, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City, intends to involve its parent institution, the University of Utah, as well as community organizations in developing new programs. “There are always new ways to think about what diversity is and what that means,” said Ashley Farmer, the museum’s co-director of learning and engagement. “That’s another facet of it.”
Questions Farmer considered include the best times for older adult schedules, optimal class sizes, and how to most effectively use sound and labels within the museum to reach older audiences.
Michelson believes that many older adults want to tell their own stories, learn new things, and challenge themselves, all of which flow together when making art. She desires museums to partner with senior living communities and educational and faith institutions that serve older adults to become standard practice.
The foundation will match its efforts with another round of grants worth up to $250,000 to 20 more art museums. The scholarship holders will be selected from autumn 2022 via an open call for applications.
“I hope that in 10 years it will be seen as a fundamental element of every museum’s outreach department,” Michelson said, “and not something that just happens because a donor like me comes along.”
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