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Museums Add Programs and Classes to Tap Interest From Older Adults

Kevyn Burger March 2, 2020
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New initiatives stimulate creativity, expand social connections and bring joy to older people.

Walking past a wall, building or train car spray-painted with colorful loops, scrawls and lettering, it’s natural to muse about the origins of the graffiti, and, as long as the mind is wandering, to question the bold public statement—is it vandalism? Urban blight? Gang territory markings?

Or is it a contemporary art form?

That question is at the heart of the aesthetic territory that Peyton Russell first staked out at age 14, when he became captivated by graffiti. Now 50, the classically trained art school graduate and Bush Foundation Fellow is an accomplished teaching artist. For decades he’s taught design elements of graffiti to youth in summer camps, after-school workshops and classroom residencies.

In the past year, Russell’s career as a teaching artist took a detour. He’s found deep and unexpected pleasure in sharing his knowledge of aerosol art with students 55 and older.

“After being engaged with kids for so many years, this has been a breath of fresh air, so exciting,” enthused Russell. “The older students are curious about street art; the class pulls the veil off the mystery of graffiti and they learn the technical components to create their own pieces.”

Russell’s eight week class for older students has twice been offered through the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the prestigious century-old landmark museum in Minnesota’s largest city.

The graffiti course is just one of the arts-learning programs seeded through Aroha Philanthropies’ Vitality Arts initiative, which began making multi-year creative aging grants to museums and arts organizations in 2016. Its national rollout has now supported 221 programs, employing 135 teaching artists and involving 2,836 participants called “fifty five and better.”

“Our focus has been to engage older adults as art makers, whether it’s singing opera, drawing, sculpting, writing memoirs, learning to tango,” said Teresa Bonner, executive director of Aroha Philanthropies. “People really respond to these opportunities; they’re hungry for them. We hear over and over from our grantees that they have double the signups they expected.”

Time and Money to Spend

Museum and nonprofit grantees funded through Aroha Philanthropies have gathered data to demonstrate the value of such courses. So far, evaluations from older students have consistently demonstrated that the classes they take enhance their social relationships, expand their community involvement and increase physical activity.

“In order to talk to funders to encourage them to take on this work, we need quantitative data and strong examples of successful programming,” said Ellen Michelson, founder and president of Aroha Philanthropies. “We have invested millions in this initiative and we have strong positives to share.”

Michelson has found that many foundations, philanthropists and funding agencies—and even some institutions themselves—have been slow to see the value of funding lifelong learning, which she chalks up to ageism.

“Museums—and science and history centers, conservatories and botanical gardens—are a natural delivery mechanism for this type of programming. They already have education departments but they’re focused on youth,” Michelson said. “Some of them still don’t understand the the need for quality programs for older adults.”

Institutions that hope to remain vital might be wise to check how demographic trends will dictate their future audiences. By 2035, it’s estimated there will be 78 million Americans 65 and older, compared to 76.4 million under age 18.

Older adults have both time and money to spend on lifelong learning.

“On a practical note, baby boomers are projected to transfer over $30 trillion in wealth in the next couple of decades. By playing an essential role in the lives of boomers as they age, museums may earn their place as recipients of some of this financial legacy,” said Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums and vice president for strategic foresight at the American Alliance of Museums.

Merritt notes that a few museums are now pioneering programs to engage patrons who’ve been marginalized in the past. She points to exhibits aimed at people living with dementia, including the Museum of Modern Art’s Meet Me at MoMA and Memories at the Museum offered by museums in Balboa Park, San Diego.

Aroha Philanthropies is now working with the Alliance with support for twenty museums that are developing arts learning workshops for older adults and by sponsoring the first Aroha Fellow for Museums and Creative Aging.

“Museums can be critical assets for this growing population, playing a major role in building social connections; nurturing creative expression and providing opportunities for meaningful work,” Merritt said. “(They) are addressing the social isolation that can impair our health and quality of life as we age.”

Getting Their Hands Dirty

Heather Olson, 63, was looking for a way to get her hands dirty, both literally and figuratively.

Previously a graphic artist, today Olson runs a one-woman business that recruits talent for creative agencies in Minneapolis-St Paul. She was intrigued by a postcard she got from the Minneapolis Institute of Art with information about Peyton Russell’s graffiti class.

She enrolled and joined a dozen other older students, learning to fashion “tags” based on their names and spray-painting stenciled self-portraits.

“Peyton was fabulous to work with. He made you feel like you really were an artist,” she said. “I’m a perfectionist and the class got me out of that; you can’t be a perfectionist in that medium. I found it freeing.”

Olson would be eager to return to the museum for more hands-on learning.

“I am talking up the class within my friendship groups,” she said. “We’re all living longer and looking for interesting activities to keep us vibrant. I want to meet new people and learn new things to expand my horizons.”

Russell has been reinvigorated by the spark he’s lit in his older students. He thinks the curriculum he’s adapted has the potential to find national footing in arts education programs aimed at adults; he’s discussing bringing his class to another nonprofit in the Twin Cities that offers classes aimed at older learners.

“This is a form of inclusion. As an artist of color, I’m well aware that many institutions have not been welcoming to underserved populations in the past,” Russell said. “I’m all for reaching out.”

Photo credit: Peyton Russell. 
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Kevyn Burger

Kevyn Burger is a freelance feature writer and broadcast producer. She was named a 2018 Journalist in Aging Fellow by the Gerontological Society of America. Based in Minneapolis, Kevyn is the mother of three young adults and one rescue terrier.

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