Foundation Gives Millions to America’s Top Museums to Address Critical Blind Spot: Programming for Seniors

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Art museums have spent a lot of time and money in recent years to become more welcoming and welcoming to local audiences. But many say they still have a big blind spot: older visitors.

Identifying and mitigating ageism is at the heart of EA Michelson Philanthropy’s new initiative, the Vitality Arts Project for Art Museums. The Minneapolis Arts Education Foundation is giving more than $2 million over 18 months to nine major museums to support “creative aging” programs for visitors 55 and older.

“We just need to set aside an ageist attitude and think about ways to increasingly integrate older people equally into our lives,” Ellen Michelson, founder and president of the foundation, told Artnet News.

Not only does extensive research suggest that engaging in art can have substantial effects health benefits—including for the elderly—but population projections indicate that older Americans soon more numerous those under 18 years old. This means museums will have to revamp programming and educational offerings, as data from the American Alliance of Museums reveals that institutions are currently spending three quarters of their $2 billion in annual education funding on programs for high school students or younger.

The foundation has already invested more than $15 million in creative aging programs at cultural institutions across the United States. But it doubles 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 Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

“Many of our older adults have been living 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 around a common experience.”

A watercolor program at Garfiled Park Conservatory funded by EA Michelson Philanthropy. Photo: EA Michelson Philanthropy.

The grants require institutions to hire professional art instructors experienced in working with older adults, and the foundation advocates “sequential” and “scaffolded” programs, “where the student progresses each week building on the skills taught the previous week. Classes conclude with a public performance or exhibition of some sort, depending on the medium, which reinforces the participants’ role as artists worthy of celebration.

LACMA, one of the beneficiaries, already had programs that tend to attract older visitors. But the museum has focused much more on youth programs than older adults, according to Naima Keith, vice president of education and public programs.

“There’s a lot of work to do,” she said.

The museum plans to use its grant money to hire a consultant to help the team identify gaps in its programming, launch new initiatives, and develop a better internal understanding of “how ageism pervades our spaces, both consciously and unconsciously,” Keith noted. .

Another grantee, the Art Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City, intends to involve its parent institution, the University of Utah, as well as community organizations in the development of new programs. “There are always new ways of thinking about what diversity is and what it means,” said Ashley Farmer, the museum’s co-director of learning and engagement. “That’s another side of it.”

Among the issues Farmer considered are the best times for seniors’ schedules, optimal class sizes, as well as how to most effectively use sound and labels within the museum to reach older audiences.

Michelson believes that many seniors want to tell their own stories, learn new things, and challenge themselves, which merges into creating art. She wants museums to partner with communities of older people and for educational and faith-based institutions that serve older people to become common practice.

The foundation will redouble its efforts with another round of grants worth up to $250,000 to 20 additional art museums. Recipients will be selected through an open Request for Proposals beginning in Fall 2022.

“I hope in 10 years this will be seen as a staple of every museum’s education department,” Michelson said, “and not something that only happens because a donor like me present.”

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