How Collaboration Put a New Spin on Creative Aging

February 10, 2017

Six years ago, Iona’s former art therapist Jackie Sargent had an idea: what if Iona’s art therapy studio could team up with a local art museum to engage older adults with cognitive and physical challenges through conversation and art-making?

Fast forward to today, and we are thrilled to share that our collaboration with the Phillips Collection has been recognized as a semifinalist by The Collaboration Prize, a national award designed to highlight exceptional permanent models of collaboration among nonprofit organizations. One of 18 semifinalists, our collaboration with the Phillips was chosen from more than 350 submissions. We are honored to receive this recognition.

How it Began

Inspired by the “Meet Me at MOMA” program, which makes art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York accessible to people with dementia, Jackie first approached the Phillips in 2010 because they had a stated mission embracing “collaboration, innovation, engagement with the world, scholarship, and new forms of public participation.” Initial conversations were promising, and the formal collaboration launched in 2011. Today, families tell us that the collaboration is a highlight of our Wellness & Arts Center programming.

Hidden Treasures

Phillips-Collection-EngagementEvery other month, participants in our Wellness & Arts Center visit The Phillips for a private tour designed for people with memory loss or cognitive impairment. The intimate and comfortable environment allows participants to freely express themselves, often engaging their imaginations, sharing memories once forgotten, and connecting with their feelings. “You never know what treasures are hidden, until the conversation begins,” says current Iona art therapist Beth Kim. “A lot of our participants will share things about their lives that maybe even their significant others had not heard.”

In addition to the artworks, participants also regularly enjoy music and textured materials to engage multiple senses, as well as include those who have visual impairments, but can still benefit from the lively conversation.

Growth in the Studio

Art-therapy-paintingBack in our art therapy studio, participants are encouraged to explore themes that emerged in their discussions. For many, the challenges of aging such as diminishment of memory, vision, hearing, or locomotive ability may cause negative and life-altering emotions ranging from pessimism about the future to profound grief and depression. This collaboration provides a safe space in which to process these emotions.

At the same time, the collaboration has also proven to promote self-reflection, improve self-esteem, teach new skills, and adapt existing skills to be successful in art-making despite cognitive or physical disease. “So many of the things going on in their minds or bodies are uncontrollable,” explains Beth. “So, choice in the art studio is so important to be able to provide. Participants choose the materials that they want to work with and the mediums, and the way that they create. They can mold and transform, and something that began as nothing becomes a beautiful canvas and artwork.

A Community Showcase

After months of conversation and exploration, the collaboration culminates each year in a two-month exhibition at The Phillips, where art by Wellness & Arts Center participants is displayed in a one-of-a-kind show. In addition to showcasing the artworks, the exhibit also provides a window for the community to learn more about this population.

“Iona has always been really great with connecting our participants with other communities,” says Beth. “With our collaboration, and especially the art show, we’re breaking a stigma. The show provides this wonderful view that is not focusing on the deficits of Alzheimer’s and other diseases, but the actual beauty of how present our participants are, how sensory they are, and how they are able to connect with total strangers.”

Our Vision for the Future

Ultimately, what has made this collaboration such a success is its flexibility, open-communication, commitment, and clearly-expressed goals. That is why, six years on, even with different professionals from both organizations taking the reins of the collaboration, it continues to serve the therapeutic, service, and public education goals of Iona and the Phillips.

Looking to the future, Beth hopes our collaboration can serve as an inspiration and model for similar programs, and continue to educate our own community. “I hope that more organizations like the Phillips Collection will collaborate with art therapists to bring in communities like we have to facilitate a discussion,” says Beth.

“Museums are created so everyone from all walks of life can enjoy. But, sometimes it’s just harder. With this collaboration, I really hope that more people can understand the capacity of our participants. How empowered they feel creating art and the possibilities that they have, even at this age or with a certain diagnosis. Let’s break that ageism! Our participants are these wonderful individuals who have lived brilliant lives. You just have to create a different avenue for them to explore.”

Thank you, again, to The Collaboration Prize for naming Iona as a semifinalist. We hope this national recognition encourages other nonprofits to collaborate in order to maximize the impact of their work.

By  Rosie Aquila and Ali Perry

Rosie Aquila is Iona’s Communications and Marketing Manager. A graduate of Kenyon College (where she worked as editor for the college’s newspaper), Rosie joined Iona’s team in 2014. 

Ali Perry is a Communications and Marketing Intern at Iona, and a former volunteer at our Active Wellness Program at St. Alban’s. She is a senior at The George Washington University studying Human Services and Social Justice, and intends to pursue a career in Nonprofit Management. 

3 thoughts on “How Collaboration Put a New Spin on Creative Aging”

  1. Congratulations! This is just another great Iona service. I am working on resource guides on the arts and wellness; the first one is “Beacons of Hope” about local programs across the world using creative expression to improve individual lives and communities. Iona Senior Services will be one of those Beacons of Hope. I will be in touch with you soon about this.

  2. So proud of Iona and this collaboration with the Philips collection. Thank you Rosie and Ali for writing about it.

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