This guide explains how to engage individuals with dementia and their caregivers with art. The methods can be used with groups or one-on-one, and can be adapted for various settings, from art museums and galleries to care organizations and private homes. These foundations can help to create meaningful experiences in any environment.
Engagement with art can have significant benefits for people with dementia and their caregivers. This is true whether the experience involves looking at and discussing art or creating art. In both cases, art can be used as a vehicle for meaningful self-expression. Indeed, engagement with art, through close looking and discussion, offers a person with Alzheimer's disease the chance to:
In addition to the above benefits, caregivers also gain from art experiences by exploring their own interests in art while the person in their care is present, safe, and engaged. In some settings, such as museums and care organizations, they can interact socially with other caregivers, share stories, and learn in a supportive environment where they are relaxed both physically and mentally.
Furthermore, their relationship with the person in their care may be enhanced because art programs provide singular opportunities for communication and connection. Finally, participants learn about each other in a new context and gain new insights into each other's ideas and interests.
Definitions of art vary greatly among theorists, philosophers, art historians, artists, and art educators. Indeed, one of the aims of individual artists and one of the primary characteristics of modern and contemporary art movements is the constant redefining of what constitutes art. Getting a sense of what is meant by "art" is important, regardless of how open-ended we leave that definition, since our concept of art dictates what objects or images will be discussed and how participants will engage in these discussions.
Overall, in this book, our use of the terms art, the arts, or artworks refers to works generally included in the categories of visual arts—namely, sculpture, painting, drawing, prints, film, photography, architecture, design, and multimedia projects. All of these mediums are represented in MoMA's collection and whether on exhibit in the galleries or accessible online are freely labeled "art." They can all be used to spark engagement and discussion.
The most essential steps for preparing an art-looking experience are listed below and explained in detail on the following pages. A sample module for a museum program is included in this section.
Select a theme that is appropriate and relevant for individuals with cognitive impairment but that captures the interest and imagination of all participants. Your theme should be general enough to be accessible for everyone and appropriate for an adult audience.
Possible themes include:
You could also focus on a single artist (such as Pablo Picasso or Vincent van Gogh), an art movement (like Impressionism or Cubism), art from a geographical region (South America or Europe, for instance), or art from a certain time period (such as the Renaissance or the nineteenth century).
If you are working with individuals or a group that you know—or if you learned of their interests in Advance—try to choose a theme you think will pique their interest.
Once you have selected a theme, choose four to six relevant works. It is possible that you might not fit all the works within the allotted time, but it is better to be prepared with too many works than not enough. You may select the theme and the works simultaneously. You might have certain works in mind that you want to talk about, and you might select a theme that accommodates those works. You can create positive and purposeful experiences with almost any work of art. Choose works that you find interesting, that you are comfortable speaking about, and that you think will engage the audience. You can focus on just one medium (such as painting, sculpture, or photography) or present works in different mediums.
If you will be viewing original works in a museum or gallery, be aware of their scale and how they are installed. Very small works may be hard for a group to see, and works that are installed close to others may be difficult to focus on. Also keep in mind where the works are in relation to one another and the level of mobility of your group.
The sequence in which you view the works should offer a helpful way to connect them in the context of the theme you have chosen. It should be coherent in terms of the thematic connection between one work and the next and the location of works relative to one another (if using original works in gallery spaces). If the works are scattered throughout a museum or gallery, their various locations will influence the sequence. It may simply be chronological, from the oldest work to the newest or vice versa.
The order will also depend on the questions you plan to ask and the ways you will link the works to each other. As a rule of thumb, it is often better to begin with works that are simpler in composition and move to those that are more complex or to move from more figurative works to those that are more abstract. Alternatively, you can begin with works that fit your theme in a literal fashion and move toward those that relate more metaphorically or conceptually.
While selecting the works and determining the sequence, ask yourself:
Using online resources, exhibition catalogues, wall labels, and books, research the works and the artists that you will be discussing. Look into each artist's practice, the time period in which he or she lived and worked, and information regarding any movements or artist groups he or she was a member of. You can also include information about the subject matter, quotations from the artist, or quotations from contemporary critics about the work or the artist's general style. Of all this information, select a few main ideas that are relevant to the work and your theme and are conducive to conversation. Settle on a limited number of points for each work (three or four); this will help you avoid lecturing and encourage a wider range of participation.
Art-historical information should be used throughout the discussion to strengthen participants' understanding and appreciation of the work and help place the work in the context of developments in art and world history. When discussing a work, always share the information typically found on a museum label with your participants—the name of the artist, date of the work, and materials used. This can be done at the beginning, the end, or at a relevant moment during the discussion. You can give the title of a work as a way to encourage further discussion. You might say, "Picasso titled this work Girl before a Mirror," and then follow with, "Does knowing the title change the way you think about the work? How?" Provide additional information during the program as it becomes relevant based on participants' responses. For example, if you're looking at Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian, and someone says, "This looks like a map of Times Square," you could mention that when Mondrian painted this picture in 1942–43, he had recently moved to New York City.
Remember that this is a conversation and not a lecture. Your goal is not only to provide art-historical facts but also to encourage the participants to engage in a discussion and share their own opinions. Sharing art-historical information can validate participants' responses and spark new conversation.
Prepare three to five questions to frame the discussion of each work as it relates to your theme, knowing that when you are actually in front of the work you will inevitably ask many more questions based on participants' responses.
Below are some helpful tips to keep in mind throughout the discussion:
It is essential to use inquiry-based techniques to facilitate the experience. That is, do not lecture or continuously provide information but rather ask questions to allow participants to reach their own interpretations through a lively discussion. In order to understand what types of questions to prepare and ask, it is important to familiarize yourself with the different parts of a discussion: Observation, Description, Interpretation, Connection, Small-Group Conversation, and Summary. While the framework for discussing a work of art that follows is designed for a group, it can be easily adapted for a one-on-one conversation. For an example of how this method can be applied directly to a specific work of art see In Front of London Bridge.
Invite participants to approach the work and take a close look before they take their seats. Make sure each participant has an unrestricted view of the work. Tell the group that the first step is to look closely, and provide a timeframe for this observation.
Participants should have adequate time to look at the work and not feel like they are being rushed. Encourage them to take a "visual inventory" of the work of art quietly, focusing on it and noticing details for about one minute.
Next, begin to describe the work as a group to establish a fundamental understanding of what is being seen. It is useful to start by simply listing what everyone sees. Description rests upon the exploration of the formal properties of the work, as well as naming recognizable subject matter. Touch on:
This process allows a wide range of participation and will benefit future interpretation. If participants immediately interpret the work, ask them which visual clue led them to that idea. Once you feel that the group has thoroughly described the work, summarize all the elements mentioned and point out any important details that have been missed.
Now you are ready to interpret the work. Interpretation rests on assigning meaning to various elements of the work and thinking about its overall significance. Responses can vary widely. Encourage breadth and variety, and use ideas generated to expand the conversation. Ask questions that prompt participants to reflect on what is not clearly visible in the work but perhaps merely suggested. Touch on:
Follow your inquiries with deepening questions, such as, "Could you say a little bit more about that?" or, "What do you see that makes you say that?" Balance your questions by sharing art-historical information relevant to the responses you receive from the group to validate individual interpretations, make connections, and encourage further discussion.
Allow for a wide range of interpretive freedom. Repeat remarks and link ideas. Enable participants to come to their own conclusions, instilling in them a sense of pride, accomplishment, and a deeper understanding of the work.
Encourage members of the group to connect the works to their life experiences. This process will help the participants gain new insights and will make the works more relevant to them. Ask if the participants like the works, and feel free to share your own opinions, making it clear that your remarks are subjective. There are various ways of making connections to:
When working with a group, conversations in smaller groups provide a chance for individuals to share stories and connect on a more personal or imaginative level to the work. This activity also gives participants who are more reticent in the larger group a chance to engage on a more intimate level.
At some point during the program have each pair of participants (the person with dementia and his or her caregiver) join one or two other pairs (for a total of four or six people in each smaller group). It is best to do this toward the middle of the program. Make sure to go through the observation, description, and interpretation phases before initiating the Turn and Talk.
Tell the groups to discuss a particular idea or theme that relates to the work of art. Your prompt should be straightforward and appropriate to the participants' cognitive abilities. The discussions should last no longer than ten minutes. At the end of the period bring everyone back together and encourage participants to share their conversations with the whole group.
Toward the end of the discussion of each work (and at the end of the program), bring together the various threads of conversation, summarizing and synthesizing the points you have touched on. Thank the participants and open up the discussion to final comments.
We have included a list of questions for different parts of the discussion of Derain's London Bridge, the first work in our example program, The City in Modern Art.
Before we begin our discussion, why don't we take a minute to look closely at this painting?
What are some recognizable buildings or structures in this painting?
Where is this scene? Indoors or outdoors?
Are the artist's brushstrokes visible? If so, describe them.
What colors do you see in the water? What about the sky?
What is the overall feeling you get from this London scene?
Why do you think Derain chose to paint this bridge?
Do you think it held special meaning for him or that he saw it often?
Why do you think the water is painted green and yellow?
What time of day do you think this scene represents?
What title would you give this work? Why?
How does this scene relate to your experience of the city?
The most prominent aspect of this work is the bridge. When you think of bridges, is there one in particular that comes to mind? Why?
Is this a place you'd like to visit? Why or why not?
Can you think of other artists who painted city scenes? How do they compare?
Certain facilitation strategies can help create a supportive environment.
Throughout the program be sure to:
The communication strategies below address the specific needs of individuals with dementia.
If you are working with a group it can be difficult to balance the interests, abilities, and personalities of each of the participants. Below are a few tips that will help keep the entire group engaged and involved.
Inevitably, challenging situations will arise, whether you are working with a group or one-on-one. Consider what you might do if the following scenarios occur: a participant is very enthusiastic and starts monopolizing the discussion; a participant makes a comment that seems to have little to do with the artwork being discussed; several people in your group seem reluctant to speak no matter what strategy you use to draw them out; a caregiver and a person with dementia keep having side conversations; a participant repeats the same point during the entire program. There are many ways to handle these different scenarios, but in all cases you should take into consideration the following when responding to the situation:
After the tour, you might feel that you could have handled a situation better than you did on the spot. Do not be too hard on yourself. Learn from each experience and strategize how you will handle similar situations in the future.
Overall, your enthusiasm and sincerity will lead to positive experiences. Being well prepared and constantly aware of the dynamics at work one-on-one or in the group will go a long way in creating a positive atmosphere and a great interaction.
For an upcoming tour at MoMA, we selected the theme The City in Modern Art.
For our tour, we chose five paintings:
Because our tour focuses on a specific type of landscape (cityscape), we purposely selected works by artists who worked at different times and were from various geographical regions. The works present an interesting overview of several key styles and techniques while showing very different interpretations of the modern city. These points offer intriguing opportunities for discussion and allow participants to tap into their own lives and experiences.
We decided to use a chronological sequence for our selected works. Doing so allows us to organize our discussion through a logical progression in time. In addition, this arrangement progresses from a concrete, representational image to more abstract compositions. It also allows us to discuss developments in the history of modern art through various artists' depictions of similar subject matter.
Here is some information about each work that we plan to bring into the conversation at appropriate times.
Derain was a member of the French movement that came to be known as Fauvism. The Fauves, or "wild beasts," were known for their unbridled use of color. Their disregard for the natural coloring of objects shocked their contemporaries. In this painting, Derain applies wild color in his depiction of the heavily trafficked London Bridge, with multiple boats and barges in the River Thames below. Derain was encouraged to visit London in the early 1900s by the dealer Ambroise Vollard. While there he painted many different views of the city, focusing mainly on the various monuments and bridges along the Thames.
Street, Dresden, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Kirchner was a member of the German Expressionist group Die Brücke (The Bridge). The artists of Die Brücke explored the emotional effects of color and composition in the depiction of contemporary life. Through the use of bright, unrealistic colors, Kirchner energized this scene of Königstrasse street in Dresden.
Boccioni was a key figure of the Italian Futurist movement. This group of motivated writers, musicians, and visual artists sought to abandon the air of nostalgia that they felt was restricting Italian society. They encouraged their compatriots to embrace the infinite potential of the future powered by technological advancements and humans' will for change. Boccioni uses "lines of force" to communicate this idea of progression in his dynamic composition of a city being built.
Lawrence's family was one of the thousands of African American families to migrate to the North around the time of World War I. They eventually settled in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, where Lawrence began taking art classes. In 1940 he began The Migration Series, a multipanel series of images that narrates this great migration in American history. Each panel was worked simultaneously, resulting in a uniformity of palette and similarity in overall composition among the sixty panels.
Through the course of his career Mondrian abandoned representation to focus on the depiction of "pure" forms. For Mondrian this meant the exclusive use of primary colors and geometric shapes. In 1940 he moved from London to New York City. There he joined a vibrant society, constantly in flux. He was influenced not only by the rhythm of city life but also by the syncopated beat of jazz music.
At Kirchner's painting we invite participants to imagine a busy street in New York City and think of how they would depict it. What medium would they use? What colors and techniques? How would those choices relate to the overall feel of that busy street?
At Jacob Lawrence's work, we discuss societal transformations in the United States in past decades, including shifts in public policy and initiatives in social reform.
The first activity is more imaginative, while the second relates to participants' personal histories. We do not necessarily do two activities in one tour, as they may take a long time. We've included these examples to demonstrate the variety of opportunities for integrating a small-group conversation. In addition, it always helps to have several activities prepared and to introduce the relevant ones based on the overall dynamics of the participants and the tour itself.
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