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Talking Art and Dementia at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Play is something we associate naturally with kids. We forget how to play as we get older; so, being given permission to play is highly liberating.

Gill Nicol and Michelle Heldon from MCA will be spoke at MuseumNext Sydney in April, 2019 about Artful. The Museum of Contemporary Art – Australia’s art and dementia program. We caught up with them to find out about the role play has in Artful and how museums can benefit people with dementia.


Can you tell us about the Artful program at MCA?

“It’s waking up something that maybe went to sleep…I have never been artistic but it inspires you to do something new.”– Elaine – Artful participant

Artful: Art and Dementia ran as a research program between March 2016 – October 2018 working with 124 people through the program (67 people with dementia/ 57 care partners), travelling from all over Greater Sydney and as far as Kiama, Blue Mountains, Newcastle and Bowral. A grant from the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation enabled the MCA to work with the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney to look at the question: Can a creative art program enhance wellbeing and markers of neuroplasticity in people living with dementia?

Professor Sharon Naismith and her team at the Brain and Mind Centre conducted approximately 50 pre- and post-interviews with Artful participants across the 3 years, making this one of the most robust studies conducted of its kind. Along with the support and advocacy of Dementia Australia, this innovative program aimed to make a difference to participants people living with dementia and their support networks by creating building new connections and experiences through creative engagement with contemporary art; whilst also contributing to new research in the art and health realm.

The research element dictated the structure of the program: groups of 6–8 people and their care partners came to the MCA fortnightly for 5 sessions over a 10-week period, to experience art and participate in hands-on art-making.

We have a fantastic team of MCA Artist Educators (visual artists, writers, performers, musicians) who deliver our creative learning programs using strategies that are high quality, intimate and bespoke, and we wanted to see how well those strategies worked with this group of people.

We know that contemporary art and creative learning can be complex, complicated and challenging. However, we have seen that it is also an ideal way to counter conventions, stimulate critical thinking and foster innovation. Additionally, creativity is often thought of as the domain of the young but through creative learning – and this includes play – the MCA aspires to encourage and change the way people view dementia. Creative play and exploration opened up new possibilities and built hope for the participants and their support networks.

Another initiative that had a big impact was the introduction of Artful At Home packs, developed to extend the creative experience beyond the onsite visits with an intention to allow the participant and care partners to have a weekly interaction with art outside the MCA over the entire 10 weeks. This began as integral to the research as a way for participants to remain engaged even outside of the onsite sessions. The Artful At Home packs include art making materials, an artwork card which acts as the reference point for the activity and a set of simple instructions. By providing the tools and structure, art making became something that could be added into the participants’ at home routines.

“Love the experience of coming to the museum so much- it makes me so happy to be here and so taking something away home with me meant that I was taking some of that happy feeling away with me.” Participant

How have those taking part in Artful program responded?

When looking at artworks, not only do the Artful participants find and discuss different meanings, but the artworks themselves are re-activated by this particular audience, often through non-verbal engagement. We have seen for example spontaneous drumming, with the care partner reporting back that drumming had continued throughout the week.

The gallery experience can bring out new interactions, often to the surprise of the care partners. One participant, without being prompted began to dance in response to Tjanpi Desert Weavers life size woven figures in the MCA Collection. In front of the artwork he smiled, lifted up his arms and began to move around the work, stopping to respond to each figure. When this was shared with his wife she was taken aback, saying that self-initiation was rare for him. For many care partners they share feedback that the Artful program was giving their loved ones a new lease on life and new sense of self.

Although the program began with an interest in working with dementia and providing respite for care partners, we soon began to see the immense impact on the care partners through this process. Their own demeanour and ways of engaging with their loved one began to change. Their active engagement in the program meant that the program was also a valuable experience for them. The experience brought hope to the care partners, they saw new ways to connect and were delighted in the surprise of the new skills and memories being built.

“The program has meant so much to us, more than you can imagine. Thank you for bringing back the smiles.  – Care partner”

The art making – both at the MCA and prompted by the At Home packs in between – was an opportunity for the care partners to not only step out of their caring role and to do something that brought themselves enjoyment and self expression as well as providing a space to connect in new ways with the individual with dementia. Many care partners mentioned that they had run out of ideas of things that they could do together – in particular fun and engaging things.

We have seen improved confidence and feelings of self-worth in both the participants and their care partners. The program has allowed for new connections to be built between the participant and their care partner – encouraging meaningful encounters that allow them to find new means of communication and to see each other for who they are outside of the disease. For many care partners, their relationship with the loved one is one of loss of who they were before the disease. Creating new connections allows for hope in forming a relationship with their new selves and reality, instead of trying to be who they were before.

What have you learnt about producing programming for people with dementia?

It was important to create activities that everyone could have some kind of ‘success’ in. As we all learn differently; some like to move their bodies, others like to look, others to listen, others to talk things through.

Being aware of the different barriers that a person may have, that could inhibit them from being able to participate, has been important in the structure of the program. Going into dark spaces, spatial awareness, noisy spaces, loss of language. A wide range of tactile tools and creative strategies were used throughout, enabling participants not to worry about getting it ‘right’. They were encouraged to explore new ways to make marks, gestures or move their bodies. This can be particularly useful for those with reduced language for example those experiencing Fronto Temporal dementia. It can give a person a new lease on life especially when facing so many barriers to engage in their daily routine. One participant reflected at the end of a program: “While I needed help for some activities, it showed me that I could still do different things and it gave me a sense of pride.”

Levels of risk versus the potential for a meaningful engagement needed to be thoroughly considered. Tools can often be sharp and potentially dangerous if not used correctly. It is therefore a balance to provide opportunities for new experiences alongside access to professional equipment and materials and should not always be defaulted to go for the safe option.

The importance of supporting the care partner and fostering their experience alongside their loved one. The dyad were intertwined so each of their experiences affected the other. We meet each person as they were, not as a diagnosis or as a carer but as a person, we get to know them and tailor the program around their individual interests and needs. Involving and giving the care partner new tools and their own creative experience enhanced the program for both and this would filter into everyday life for many.

What advice would you give someone thinking of doing something similar in their museum?

Every context is different. At the MCA we work with contemporary art, with living artists and Artist Educators. We combine looking, talking and making. We often set up challenging art-making workshops as we are able to provide a safe space for all to learn something and develop from where they are; and so we are not limiting what individuals can do, which happens sometimes for people with dementia.

So our advice would be to really understand what you can deliver; in your context and with your capacity and resources.. read up about what others have done, as there is great work happening across the globe of which we are a small part (Meet me at MOMA New York, Dulwich Picture Gallery London, National Gallery of Australia Canberra, Art Gallery of NSW Sydney.)

A lot of this text comes from a detailed report we are producing this year about the program, and some of that will be available on our website. We are aiming to develop a toolkit to help others, to sell online as well. Our program is continuing with new funding and without the research element – more info about Artful is at

Interested in learning more about Health & Wellbeing in Museums? Join us for the Museums, Health & Wellbeing Summit


About the author – Charlotte Coates

Charlotte Coates is a Brighton based writer working extensively in the arts and cultural spaces. Charlotte has explored a wide range of museum related subjects since she started writing for MuseumNext in early 2019.

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