A commitment to helping people connect
● By J. Chambless
Susan Shifrin, founder and executive director of ARTZ Philadelphia.
Susan Shifrin is the founder and executive director of ARTZ Philadelphia. She started the organization in 2013 and has seen how allowing those with dementia to interact with artworks, either in a gallery setting, or in residential care facilities, helps people. The program comes to the Brandywine River Museum every month. Here, Shifrin discusses the roots of ARTZ Philadelphia.
Q.: Before you started the ARTZ Philadelphia outreach to those with dementia, were there similar programs in museums? Or was this an original concept?
A.: ARTZ Philadelphia was originally the first mid-Atlantic affiliate of a Boston-based organization called Artists for Alzheimers (acronym ARTZ), co-founded by Sean Caulfield and John Zeisel around 2002. It was this organization that really developed the prototype for museum-based programs for people living with dementia. The well-known program at the Museum of Modern Art – “Meet Me at MoMA” -- was, in fact, co-developed with Sean Caulfield on behalf of ARTZ. At one time, there were four or five ARTZ affiliates across the country as well as one in Paris. I'm sorry to say that the original ARTZ is no more, and that most of the affiliates have gone their own way, so ARTZ Philadelphia is really the only former affiliate left standing.
However, even from the first days of ARTZ Philadelphia, Sean Caulfield encouraged me to develop the organization and our programs in ways that were most appropriate to our Philadelphia-area communities; and as a long-time museum educator, I had my own ways of envisioning the connections that were possible and necessary. So for instance, because the Greater Philadelphia area is so heavily populated with continuing care retirement communities, I knew that if we were to truly serve our constituents, we would need to develop programs that directly addressed the desires and needs of those living in such communities, particularly those living in memory care facilities for whom trips to museums might not always be possible or even comfortable. “ARTZ on the Road” and “ARTZ in the Making” are both flagship programs that were born out of that sense of what we owed our community. We became a stand-alone 501c3 charitable organization in 2015 and have never looked back.
What inspired you to reach out to this group? Did you know someone who suffered from dementia?
My mother lived with dementia for nearly 20 years. She just died last November. But while my experiences as a family care partner have informed my practice in other ways, she was actually not the direct inspiration for my founding of this organization. It was the determination and persistence of a wonderful social worker -- Debby Davis -- that really propelled me forward. When I was still museum educator at a local college museum, she came to me to plead for our developing programs that would serve her clients living with dementia in a nearby care community. She handed me John Zeisel's now famous book, I'm Still Here: A New Philosophy of Alzheimer's Care, and urged me to read it. That book led me to ARTZ Boston and to Sean Caulfield, who at my request came to our museum to lead workshops and trainings for me and for my student staff.
As an art historian and someone who clearly loves art, were you surprised by the depth of reactions you got when you showed people these artworks?
I was astounded. And moved. As I always say, I was inspired to found ARTZ Philadelphia because I was profoundly affected as I watched visitors, many in the later stages of dementia, come to life in the museum galleries as they looked at and talked about art with each other, with me, their professional caregivers, and the college students who worked at the museum. It was so moving to watch this transformation in people who, in some cases, had rarely spoken about or shared their lives with others. Art was their vehicle for expression, interaction, creativity, and mutual respect. And for laughter – plenty of laughter.
Why is it important to bring people to the museum, rather than just showing them artworks where they live? What is it about being in the museum environment that gets a better reaction?
For those program participants (both people with dementia and care partners) who are able to travel without too much agitation or dislocation, the advantages of seeing works of art in the museum are numerous. First and foremost, if we think of these programs as community-building efforts first and foremost that dispel isolation and depression by using art of all kinds as the vehicle for conversation and community, then being in the museum setting is quite helpful. Of course, how people are received by the museum is critical -- are they made to feel welcome, valued, honored, respected? If the answer is “yes to all of the above,” then coming to a place of culture that values each individual can build esteem as well as providing rich opportunities to have a voice and be heard. There is something about being “in the presence” of the art, too, that is incomparable. … That is why above all, we and our museum partners -- and Brandywine is exemplary in this -- do all that we can to create a space that is welcoming, respectful, jovial, and full of caring.
How do you find people to facilitate these programs? Not everyone is comfortable with handling discussions with those suffering from dementia
It is absolutely the case that not everyone can, or should, do this work. We are extremely careful and systematic in hiring program facilitators; they go through multiple interviews and part of the interview process involves meeting and facilitating a mini-session with some of our program participants (some with dementia, some who are care partners), who are official members of our searches. We believe very deeply in the slogan “nothing about us without us,” and in order to fulfill our requirements, every program facilitator we hire has to first and foremost fulfill the expectations of our constituents and interact with them in ways that demonstrate empathy, creativity, humor, flexibility, and above all, deep caring that comes from a place of authentic respect.
Can you relate some of the more memorable reactions you've seen?
I can share an extraordinary testimonial from one of our longtime participants, an artist and long-time high school teacher who has been coming to our programs with her husband -- a physicist and teacher -- since shortly after his diagnosis in 2015. They were until recently regulars at all of our museum programs, including Brandywine.
“Try to imagine this scene: a husband and wife and a relatively new diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. They are doing all the necessary things to reorganize their futures. His desire is to just live his life. At support group she hears about a program called ARTZ. She is an artist and art educator so this sounds interesting! He’s a math and physics fellow, but he has indulged his wife’s love of art for many years and come to enjoy it as well. So he’s basically OK with the idea of heading to the Woodmere Art Museum one Friday, if not exactly gung-ho.
“The day dawns, and Carl is feeling uncertain. He’s not so sure about going. … We arrive just on time, both of us upset and out of sorts, barely speaking. We are greeted with smiles and name tags. We are ushered into a large gallery, and seated with others in front of an enormous, black and white, trompe l’oeil painting which looks like nothing more than crumpled paper.
“Susan Shifrin steps up and asks ‘Is this piece flat?’ Carl’s hand shoots into the air. ‘May I get up?’ ‘Of course!’ He leaps from his chair, and goes to look at the painting from the side, then declares with a big smile ‘YES, it’s flat!’
“As any of you who have ever attended one of these events knows, a lively discussion ensued, in which Carl’s claim was discussed up, down, and sideways, with much humor, plenty of laughter, and total engagement by everyone present. At the end of the hour, Carl turned to me, eyes sparkling and said, ‘That was FUN!’
“That day changed our lives. A door opened where before it seemed that doors were only shutting. Here was a place where no one was defined by his or her limitations. Here was a place of laughter, joy, beauty and fun. The ARTZ Philly programs are potent medicine, like a highly effective and empowering tonic, healing and enriching our lives in ways we could never have imagined.”
How does the program help caregivers in their interactions with loved ones?
We encourage family care partners to come as often as they can with the people they love who are living with dementia because we want them to experience the joy and privilege of seeing them return to themselves, to become more lively, more expressive, more happy to speak and listen and speculate with others, including their family members who in some cases have become mired in a profound sense of loss that won't allow them to contemplate the possibility of joy or hope. In other words, our programs are as much for care partners as they are for people living with dementia.
How did the Brandywine reach out to you to initiate the program?
After learning about our ARTZ @ The Museum program at Woodmere Art Museum, having come to observe it in action, and having met separately with me and with the Curator of Education at Woodmere to learn more about the program, Laura Westmoreland, Associate Educator for Adult and Community Programs at Brandywine -- very shortly after joining the staff there -- reached out to invite us to do a pilot program at Brandywine. We had agreed to a three-month pilot program, but the museum's director sat in on that first pilot program and decided that there was no need for any additional pilots. We forged our partnership then and there, and we at ARTZ are so tremendously grateful to Laura, to Mary Cronin, Dean of Education and Public Programs, who gave us her seal of approval very early on, and to Brandywine's director Thomas Padon, who made that fateful decision to dispense with the pilot process and just launch a lasting partnership between his museum and our organization.