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Film: Older adults make their mark at the Museum of Modern Art

Francesca Rosenberg, Director of Community, Access and School Programs at The Museum of Modern Art, New York spoke at MuseumNext Dublin in April 2016 about the work that the museum is doing with older audiences.

Good morning. Nice to be here with all of you. I’m here to introduce you to Prime Time, which is a multiyear research and development project launched by the Museum of Modern Art almost two years ago. Prime Time aims to rethink how museums and other cultural institutions can support a fulfilling aging process, one defined by creativity, curiosity, connectedness, and continued growth.

Since many of the sessions at MuseumNext will focus on millennials, I’m delighted that this session includes thinking about older adults and the various roles that older adults can play in maintaining a vibrant and relevant cultural institution. We can also think together about the unique contributions that cultural institutions can play to support older adult audiences.

So, to set the stage, I’m going to show you some demographic information. Today, there are over 810 million people over 60 worldwide. That number is projected to reach 1 billion in less than ten years, and double by 2010, reaching 2 billion. By 2020, the number of adults aged 65 and over will outnumber children under the age of five for the first time in history, and by 2050, older adults will outnumber all children under the age of 14.

Now, most every museum offers family programmes designed for family units, that look like this. But, what we need to be developing are family programmes for families like this, where the matriarch and the patriarch are in their 80s, and they visit with their kids, who are in their 60s, and who bring the grandkids, who are in their 30s. We really need to rethink our family offerings.

In the US, people over 60 accounted for 12.5% of the population in 1950, 18.6% of the population in 2010, and will make up 27% by 2050.

Now that I’ve covered the demographics, I’d like to address some of the common myths about aging that are pervasive in our culture. Myth number one – older adults are all the same. In actuality, older adults are as diverse, if not more diverse than other age groups.

As we age we become less like our peers than younger people. This uniqueness happens because as years pass, people learn different things, face different things, and respond differently to life’s occurrences. Also, the actual number of years lived affects people differently. So, some people are old at 65, and others are young at 90.

Myth number two: older adults are all in poor health. She looks pretty good, huh? Only a very small percentage of the 65+ population live in institutional settings, such as nursing homes. Even as that number increases with age, it’s only 10% for people 85 and up. Furthermore, 44% of people aged 65 and over rate their health as excellent or very good. They are much healthier than previous generations.

Myth number three: older adults have no money. Not only are today’s older adults healthier, they are also wealthier. In 2017, the US population, 50 and older, will control a full 70% of the disposable income. It’s useful to know that there is a wide range within this demographic as nearly one in five New Yorkers over 65 live below the federal poverty line. But, for the rest of the 21st century, people over 65 will be the fastest growing group of consumers in the world.

Fashion brands are recognising that this is an important demographic. Here’s a Kate Spade ad with Iris Apfel – she’s one of my favourites. Here’s a Celine ad with Joan Didion, and New York Magazine with Joni Mitchell on the cover of their fashion issue. So, the message in the fashion world seems to be that old is the new black.

So, with all this background information to inform us, the museum of modern art has developed Prime Time, a programming and outreach initiative aimed to increase the participation of older adults. We’ve spent the last year and a half conducting research and experimenting with different types of programmes. Our researches had two main components. The first was comprised of a literature review, and needs assessment interviews with experts, to understand current thinking and trends in the field of aging.

There’re four main things that we learned. Social isolation is a challenge. Older adults are less likely to be employed, married, or cohabitating, so they spend more time alone than people of other ages, yet they prefer to spend their free time doing social activities, rather than solitary ones.

That said, only 3% of New York’s older adults visit senior centres, and we were very surprised by this figure. So, it’s not the only place to reach them, and many are unaffiliated with any sort of group. Even though only a tiny fraction on New York City’s older adults visit senior centres, museums in the States, especially in New York, tend to work almost exclusively through senior centres. In o ur research looking internationally, we found a number of pioneering projects, including IMMAs work here in Dublin, initiated by Helen O Donahue almost 25 years ago, the important work at the [Altina], Age and Opportunity, and also at various museums in the UK, and the Dulwich Picture Gallery and equal arts. Their work all served as inspiration in our efforts at MoMA.

Finally, we learned that education is the hot new leisure activity. Today’s older adults are more educated than those of previous generations, and they have the desire to keep learning.

The second area of our research was an action research project, and we convened the Prime Time Collective, a diverse group of 11 New Yorkers, ranging in age from 61 to 94, and embedded them in MoMAs existing programmes for adults, in order to get their feedback. Through written evaluations, focus groups, video interviews, our research with the Collective illuminated the kinds of experiences these individuals seek in museums. They’re looking for experiences which are engaging, inclusive, social, and regularly scheduled.

The barriers to participation that they perceive are financial, physical, informational, and attitudinal.

In this three minute video, you can hear more directly from three members of the Prime Time Collective.

Female Voice: I worked basically all my life, brought up three children, ran a business, and the idea of just going to a museum, and that my mind would be still enough to concentrate on something like this – it didn’t work during those years. The beauty of retirement and being older at this time, is to have this stimulation.

Male Voice: One of the things I like to do is study the paintings, understand the composition, the mood that’s being created.

Female Voice: Many times, I came to the museum and I looked at the art, but I realised that each one of us has a different feeling, and can get different responses, and that actually, what was important was what I was feeling.

Female Voice: If you have a common interest, and art is uplifting, stimulating, to come to a museum and meet like-minded people, I think a museum can provide good company.

Female Voice: I loved making the collage with the little pieces of cloth. It was a wonderful, wonderful feeling to have something in a museum that I have been going to for years, and would never have dreamed of having something of mine on the wall. To me, it was the highlight of what could have happened to me at 93.

Female Voice: I think the fact that the MoMA even considers an outreach to this population is a great beginning, and makes it very hopeful.

Female Voice: I was so welcomed, and felt so wanted. We’re used to being invisible. Continuing to learn is very important. It equalises everything.

Male Voice: It’s the ability to say something, to create something. I’m not a person that talks a lot, but with painting, I can say whatever I want.

Female Voice: I walked away with more confidence that day, leaving the museum, than I did coming into the museum. That’s a very big thing. There’s so much to learn, every single day, and that’s my hope, to be awake, and keep on learning.

As for what we’ve developed programmatically, we’re taking a three pronged approach. The first is to work across the museum with all departments, to make sure MoMA is experienced as welcoming, comfortable, and accessible. It’s very much a team effort across the institution, and we even have an accessibility taskforce made up of representatives from all the departments, frontline staff, as well as back of house staff, such as the curators, the designers, and the digital media team.

The second part of our approach is partnering with community based organisations to offer customised programmes to New Yorkers who are otherwise unlikely to visit the museum. I’ll quickly tell you about a few of our partnerships. We’ve collaborated with the Martha Stewart Centre for Living, on a social prescription programme for older adults with depression, or at risk for social isolation. Through this partnership, primary care physicians and social workers write a prescription for an art programme at MoMA, just like they would for medication. Social prescribing has its roots in Ireland and the UK, but we don’t know of any similar programmes happening in the US.

Sage is an organisation that provides programmes for LGBTQ older adults. We did a call to artists within the community, and have begun a partnership that will culminate with an exhibition at MoMA.

We work with the Brooklyn Parkinson’s group, who did a dance performance inspired by the exhibition, Matisse, The Cut-Outs, and we continue to offer our Meet Me at MoMA programme, for people with Alzheimer ’s disease and their care partners.

Most recently, we offered an intergenerational programme called Act Your Age, which brought teens and older adults together to learn about photography, performance art, and each other.

We try to find ways of having older adults not only participate in our programmes, but also lead them, thus increasing the visibility of older adults, and elevating their voices. This is Al, who is one of our Collective members, who led a painting class for his peers.

And, for seniors unable to leave their homes, we offer online programming through a partnership with the Virtual Senior Centre.

The third area of focus for Prime Time is creating opportunities for independent, non-affiliated older adults. The strength of Prime Time is that it recognises the diversity of the older adult population. Programmes cannot be one size fits all. We offer programmes for varying interests, levels of experience, learning styles, and more, and these include film programmes, walking tours, studio programmes, lectures, and more.

We’re always trying out new programmes, and collaborating with our colleagues across the museum to create new opportunities for meaningful interactions and participatory learning.

Since May is older American’s month, we’re offering all sorts of discounts, promotions and programmes. Last May, thanks to our marketing and communications team, and our partnership with Ari Seth Cohen and his advanced style blog, our promotional posts on Instagram amassed more than 50,000 likes.

So, at MoMA, the bottom line is that we know that old is an art.

Thank you.

Francesca Rosenberg, Director of Community, Access and School Programs at The Museum of Modern Art, New York spoke at MuseumNext Dublin in April 2016 about the work that the museum is doing with older audiences. To stay informed about our International Museum Conferences follow MuseumNext on Twitter or like MuseumNext on Facebook.

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