At the Williams College Museum of Art, Museum Associates are trained to lead guided tours for all types of audiences—from kindergarten classes to college students. Museum Associates are trained in weekly sessions to deepen their knowledge about the exhibitions on view, art history, and teaching strategies.
Emily Arensman, who received her M.A. from Williams in art history in 2010, worked at the Williams College Museum of Art both as a Museum Associate and as an intern. There, she learned to connect the museum’s exhibitions to the Williams undergraduate experience. Now, as the coordinator of public programs at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, she is creating programs for senior citizens.
“These audiences aren’t necessarily dissimilar,” she says. “Both programs challenge audiences to actively engage with the collection and works on view, to discuss new ideas, and to relate what they learn to their own lives and experiences.”
The Whitney’s Senior Programs brings art programming directly to 40 senior centers. A large number of the participants are low-income immigrants, many who need translation services to participate. To that end, Arensman actively seeks trained educators who speak Cantonese, Mandarin, and Spanish. “The accessible, inclusive, and free programs we provide create opportunities for social engagement and lifelong learning among a rapidly growing and diverse aging population in New York City,” she says.
“As a graduate student, I was given the opportunity to engage with some of the most pioneering scholars in the art field,” says Arensman. “While course work, travel, and independent research helped to shape my intellectual pursuits, the work-study program at the Williams College Museum of Art provided me the chance to develop skills outside of the library and seminar room. At the Whitney, I find that I consistently draw from my coursework and internship experience to help develop programs that will challenge adult audiences to think critically about the works on view and larger trends in American art and culture.”
Arensman isn’t the only graduate from the Williams graduate art history program working with the aging population in New York City. Carolyn Halpin-Healy, who received her M.A. from the graduate art history program in 1986, has just launched a website for her non-profit arts organization called Arts & Minds. Specifically focused on providing high-quality arts programming to people living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, Arts & Minds also focuses on the role of the caregivers.
“There is a high rate of caregiver burnout for both professionals and family members,” explains Halpin-Healy. “As the person with dementia changes, there is a great deal of stress on relationships and rates of depression and other stress related illnesses are very high. Our goal is to provide meaningful activities of the highest quality for both the person with Alzheimer’s and the caregiver, and to build communication between the two.”
Arts & Minds, which partners with residential institutions, such as community centers and nursing homes, as well as art museums, anchors its programs in the aesthetic experience. Each program begins with participants gathered around a work of art. The experience is about response and interpretation, with older adults bringing their own histories of experience to the process of discerning the meaning of the piece. “Engaging with art doesn’t depend on memory,” explains Halpin-Healy. “We can all enjoy the formal elements of a work of art and when we do so in the company of others, it becomes a very rich experience.”
“Art,” she says, “stimulates very different processes in the brain. The neural connections responsible for vision, memory, language, emotion, and imagination are all activated. Art truly has the power to inspire and transform.”
Above images, top to bottom: The Whitney’s Senior Programs, photo by Tiffany Oelfke; Arts & Minds, photo courtesy of Arts & Minds.