Sunday, July 8, 2018

Arts and Aging: Interview with Aroha Philanthropies Founder, Ellen Michelson; and Executive Director, Teresa Bonner.

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on......................."

Aroha Philanthropies has been at the forefront as one of the major forces pushing for more arts and creative aging awareness and projects throughout the country and across sectors. Arts and Aging is really two separate fields:  programs and projects concerned with aging gracefully and with meaning; and programs and projects concerned with the impact of the arts and creativity on seniors with health issues; on their wellness and recovery.  Aroha is principally involved in the former - focusing on the vast majority of seniors who are healthy.  Both thrusts have gained considerable traction in the past five years, and both are at the top of areas in which the arts are moving forward rapidly with outreach, programs, projects, funding and research.

Ellen Michelson is the Founder and President of Aroha Philanthropies, and has set the vision for the organization.

Teresa Bonner is the Executive Director of Aroha Philanthropies and works closely with Ellen in all aspects of the foundation's activities, programs and projects.

Here is her Bio:
Teresa has served as the director of the U.S. Bancorp Foundation, the Piper Jaffray Foundation and two nonprofit organizations. As director of the U.S. Bancorp Foundation, Teresa managed $20 million in Foundation grantmaking annually and led the company’s community relations activities.

Teresa is a member of the Council on Foundations' 2013 Family Philanthropy Conference Task Force and the Family Philanthropy Exchange Steering Committee of Northern California Grantmakers. She served on the Planning Committee for the Minnesota Council on Foundations 2011 Family Philanthropy Symposium and is a member of the Minnesota Council on Foundations and the Association of Small Foundations. Teresa is a frequent speaker on philanthropy, most recently to California and Minnesota affiliates of the Family Firm Institute, estate planning councils and planned giving councils.

Prior to joining Family Philanthropy Advisors in 2008, Teresa was Senior Vice President and head of Business Development and Charitable Services for U.S. Bank’s Private Client Group, where she oversaw new business development and services offered to high-net worth clients, including private foundation services, grantmaking, endowment management and charitable services.

In addition to her foundation management roles, Teresa has served as Executive Director of Milkweed Editions, an acclaimed nonprofit literary publisher, and as Executive Director of the Library Foundation of Hennepin County, where she directed planning and implementation of marketing, fundraising, promotional, programming, public relations, grant administration and volunteer functions for one of the country’s largest library systems.  Prior to her work in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, Teresa was a partner in the Minneapolis law firm of Lindquist and Vennum.

Between 2001 and 2007, Teresa chaired the board of directors of MacPhail Center for Music, one of the country’s largest community music schools, where she led the transformation of that organization’s governance, successfully completed a major capital campaign for the creation of a new flagship facility, and chaired the Center’s grand opening celebrations.  She has served on several other nonprofit boards and has been a frequent panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts.  Teresa won the “Woman Changemaker” award from the Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal in 2004.

Teresa graduated magna cum laude from the University of North Dakota with a degree in journalism. After completing Law School at the University of Minnesota, she served as a judicial clerk for the Hon. Gerald Heaney of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

Together, Michelson and Bonner have successfully guided an initial commitment to dramatically increase the field's awareness of, and response to, the issues attendant to arts and creative aging; funded and nurtured scores of impact projects in the arena; and have directly created, and brokered, meaningful working partnerships and collaborations across sectors. They have accomplished this success by a sophisticated focusing on moving slowly and methodically, measurably building a foundation of awareness within the sector - which approach has yielded amazing accomplishments in making the arts and aging field one of critical importance in the arts and to society.   

Here is the interview with Ellen and Teresa:

Barry:  The main thrust of your and other activities in this arena has been how arts and creativity can help people age gracefully, with dignity, joy, and better and more fulfilling social engagement. In pushing those objectives, you’ve - wisely I think - spent considerable time and resources to inform and educate the arts field about the potential in this area, to train arts organizations in how they might approach providing services to their aging constituents, and to share ideas and projects that are working.  Can you comment on your development of that strategy and where we are in the obviously ongoing process of working within the arts field to expand and grow awareness of, and participation in, the arts and aging field within the wider arts sector so as to someday make arts and aging programs ubiquitous.
 Having been involved for five years, and having successfully moved the needle, what lessons have you learned so far? 

Teresa:  Thanks, Barry, for the kind words and great summary of our key strategies. Let us share a bit of background on how we got to them and where we are today.

Ellen: As an individual funder, I have supported arts education for youth for many years. In 2011, I attended a session on creative aging at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference and learned about the work of Tim Carpenter of EngAGE, which has created amazing senior arts colonies in the Los Angeles area. I knew then and there that I wanted to support arts education for older adults and began thinking about how I might approach this. When leaving the meeting I asked Tim how a small foundation could start work in this arena. He said to me “teaching artists…bring more teaching artists to this work.” That didn’t seem too difficult an idea, so Aroha started our work with teaching artists as our inspiration to dig in.

Teresa: First, as we began learning about the broad field of creative aging in 2012, Ellen and I met with Maura O’Malley and Ed Friedman, co-founders of New York-based Lifetime Arts. They had a clear vision of the potential of arts education for active older adults, what best practices looked like, and what the field needed in order to grow. Each of them brought long careers in arts education and administration to this field, and they understood how the arts education principles that undergird K-12 programs could and should be adapted for active older adults. They champion professionally led, sequential, skill-based learning in an art form over time, in a supportive environment that intentionally builds community and friendships among participants.

Ellen:  At that time, we were finding our philanthropic focus within creative aging. This type of programming was the most compelling to me personally, and we felt it was also the most underserved area of creative aging, as most arts-related programs for older adults were designed for those with dementia. We realized that very little programming was designed for the broader population of older adults, most of whom remain independent very late in life.

Teresa: Second, we saw that a field was just beginning to emerge, with programs springing up, mostly in isolation, across the country. We were surprised to find an almost complete lack of philanthropic support for it. We wanted to inspire other funders to see the potential of this work, and Ellen was motivated to personally reach out to them to build awareness.

Third, we were eager to see new programs with the potential for success and replication arise across the country. At the same time, organizations clearly needed help in developing programs that appealed to older adults. We’re great believers in the cohort model of shared learning, and so we developed “Seeding Vitality Arts” to both fund new programs and train grantees to develop and implement them. We provided this for both our first national cohort as well as our second group of Minnesota-based organizations. We’ve just invited proposals for a third cohort, which will be made up of museums of all kinds across the country.

We engaged Lifetime Arts to provide training, technical assistance and capacity-building for the grant cohorts, as they have done for library systems, arts organizations, arts councils, teaching artists and many others over the past decade. We brought the grantees together in person for a two-day training in fall 2016 and Lifetime Arts offered extensive technical assistance to them online and by phone.

We knew our grantees have much to learn from each other, and in early 2018, we re-convened our first cohort after successfully completing their first year of programming to share their successes and challenges in person. We were thrilled to see the enthusiasm with which they have embraced these programs. We’re also using Basecamp, an app that allows easy communication and sharing of ideas, photos, videos and other documentation of the work, to enable our grantees to stay in contact.

Ellen:  We’re grateful to our partners who are helping us get the word out about the potential these programs have to improve lives. Here are just a few highlights:
In terms of awareness, the National Guild for Community Arts Education began promoting arts education for older adults many years ago. It has offered and is expanding training and capacity-building programs to support its members’ desire to develop programs for this population.
Grantmakers in the Arts and Americans for the Arts have both welcomed presentations on this topic at their annual conferences.

We are now collaborating with the American Alliance of Museums to bring programs to museums of every kind across the country. We announced the RFP for our new “Seeding Vitality Arts in Museums” initiative in June, and welcomed 350 museums to apply during a webinar. We look forward to announcing a new cohort of museums beginning this journey in the fall of 2018.
The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies invited Aroha to present two briefings on this topic for state arts leaders at its biennial assembly in October 2018. We are eager to find great ways to support state agencies’ commitment to meaningful arts programs for older adults. 

Teresa:  Last, the key to expansion, we believe, lies in two areas. First, we need many more cross-sector collaborations between arts organizations and organizations that serve and/or attract older adults. This can take many forms, including collaborations that offer workshop series in senior housing communities, senior centers, faith communities and colleges that want to directly serve their communities. Second, we hope to see arts organizations that offer arts ed for the P-12 population to begin to serve older adults. Those that have done so are seeing new relationships with their stakeholders and new ways to be really entwined in the lives of their consituents and communities. In the long term, this may be much more sustainable than creating new organizations that focus exclusively on creative aging. 

Ellen: There is so much potential here, and a few examples will give you an idea of this. The Minnesota Opera created a chorus of adults 55+ and 200 people participated in an eight-week workshop series in which they learned and performed opera choruses in three languages. Organizations offering arts workshop series routinely report that they can’t meet the demand for classes. A museum in Massachusetts noted that it had tried for years to establish collaborations with a neighboring senior community without success, and that this program has changed that. A public library in Tennessee partnered with a local college’s art department to offer visual arts workshops, and the faculty as well as the participants formed a great collaboration. The list goes on and on.

Barry:  There are now countless stories of how the arts have improved the lives of real seniors.  How do we get those poignant and effective stories out and heard?  What is your overall, ongoing approach to telling the arts and aging story to the arts field, to decision makers, and to the public?

Ellen: The short and true answer is that we started very, very small and are ramping up our communication. 

I am a visual learner. I believe that inspired storytelling - in pictures, not just words - is absolutely essential. We produced several short videos that anyone can view, download and share. These videos are accessible, moving and entertaining, and we have received great accolades for them. You can view them at

 We developed a website,, and brought together many resources designed to inspire and inform readers, including research studies that demonstrate the benefits of the arts for active older adults. 

I was shocked that so few funders were aware of the field of creative aging and wanted to make a difference. In 2015, we invited a select group of public and private arts funders to day-long sessions in Palo Alto, CA and Minneapolis, MN, to learn about this field. As noted above, we’ve also conducted sessions and/or webinars for Grantmakers in the Arts, Grantmakers in Aging, Philanthropy New York and Americans for the Arts to reach a broader array of funders.

Teresa: After that, we launched our “Seeding Vitality Arts” initiatives, first nationally and then in Minnesota, with open RFPs, because we know that nonprofits pay attention to new funding opportunities. That worked beautifully – we had more than 200 applications for the first cohort! We deliberately chose grantees representing a robust variety of art forms, each of whom is part of a broader constituency with which this work can be shared. For example, our grantees are affiliated with as the American Alliance of Museums, Opera America, Chorus America, Theater Communications Group, Dance USA and more. We encourage our grantees to view themselves as leaders in this emerging movement and to share their stories with their colleagues across the country. We strongly encourage our grantees to document their work with engaging photos and videos so that they can share the stories with their stakeholders. 

We’re now ready to take on a more pro-active deliberate communications strategy. Stay tuned!

Barry:  In terms of program evaluation and research, where are we in terms of understanding and confirming the role and value of the arts in the lives of seniors?  What more do we need to do research-wise in the short and long terms?  What do we know and what don’t we know?

Teresa: This research started with Dr. Gene Cohen’s 2006 study of the arts and aging, which evaluated the impact of programs of the kind that we are supporting. His study found that the arts are indeed good for older adults. Those who participated in multi-session arts learning programs shows improved cognition (both memory and executive), improved quality of life, improved emotional wellbeing, and fewer over-the-counter medications, doctor visits and falls compared to the control group. A number of other small studies have showed similar benefits. The NEA has been particularly interested in this topic and has funded evaluations and studies. 

Dr. Julene Johnson of the University of California San Francisco has led a more recent, major study on the impact of choral singing on the health and wellbeing of older adults, and we hope to see the results published soon. 

For both our national and the Minnesota initiatives, Aroha engaged Minneapolis-based Touchstone Center for Evaluative Inquiry to help us measure the impact of Seeding Vitality Arts programs on participants. More than 700 program participants were surveyed, and grantees were interviewed. The interim results are amazing: In the first year of programming, participants reported increased creativity and mental engagement, with more than 80% saying their capacity for creative expression had improved and 77% reporting increased mental engagement. The vast majority of participants said their skills and confidence in creating art and their interest in other art forms also increased.

Ellen:  We need more research to explore the impact of arts programs on older adults. We need more studies with larger sample sizes and strong design. We hope that someday making art will be as well recognized as a boon to older adults’ health and wellbeing as exercise is today. 

Barry:  Early on, you collaborated and partnered with the Center for Creative Aging and with GIA, among others.  What other collaborations and partnerships have proven effective, and what new ones might be in the offing?  The arts are already working with special groups such as veterans and caregivers. I’m thinking about AARP, universities, more LAAs and SAAs, the NEA and NEH, Libraries, NASAA, and more.

Teresa:  We’ve already described some of Aroha’s collaborations with partners in the arts and aging fields. We are especially excited about our new partnership with the American Alliance of Museums ( AAM represents more than 35,000 individual museum professionals and volunteers, institutions, and corporate partners serving the museum field. They are contributing critical thought leadership, communication and much more to make this a success. AARP has provided leadership and information on the importance of addressing social isolation among older adults, and they’ve featured one of our videos on their site. We believe that the leadership of the NEA, the NEH, IMLS, and state and local arts agencies are of critical importance in encouraging program development and training as well as signaling the importance of this topic in their respective communities.

Barry:  How much emphasis are you currently putting on the value of arts participation in senior’s social  lives?  Can you cite specific programs, projects, or grant awards which you think are, or can, have a positive effect?

Ellen: Social isolation is an enormous problem for many older adults, and it leads to dramatically worsened outcomes in health and wellbeing, so building community and social engagement are absolutely central to this work. Grantees in our Seeding Vitality Arts cohorts learn to create supportive, trusting relationships among the teaching artists and the students throughout the process. Class members share life experiences, hopes, losses, and their aesthetic views. Friendships often spring up and endure long past the workshop series.

Teresa: The midterm evaluation of our Seeding Vitality Arts U.S. cohort shows we’re on the right track. More than two-thirds of the 700+ participants surveyed reported that they had formed new and/or stronger relationships through the classes. Sixty percent said that their participation had encouraged them to participate in other community activities. We’ve received tremendously moving testimonials from participants, such as this participant in Johnson City, TN, who wrote, “We don’t need condescending, ‘thumb-twiddling’ pastimes. We need community, respect, rigor and real interaction on sophisticated levels with imaginative, involved people who expect us to be the same.” Another wrote, "It's hard to put into words what this class meant to me. I lost my husband in 2008 to lung cancer. I lost myself also. Now I feel hope... you changed the rest of my life!" These are people who participated in an 8 or 10-week workshop series.

Barry:  How would you describe and characterize the infrastructure and the ecosystem of the arts and aging field as it exists today, and where is it strong, and where does it fall short and need improvement?  By infrastructure and ecosystem, I mean the coordination and communication between all those working in this area, the funding mechanisms, the research, the convening and opportunities to exchange information and ideas et. al.

Teresa: Today, this is still a very small field. Systemic support and coordination is most evident through the National Guild for Community Arts Education, which has regularly hosted preconferences and sessions on creative aging at its national conference and plans to build a network and a conference track on creative aging in the future. We are not seeing regular, coordinated national communication by many organizations other than Lifetime Arts and ourselves, which is part of the reason we pulled many resources together on our web site, The National Center for Creative Aging continues to be a resource for those seeking information on creative aging programs.

Barry:  There has been a measurable increase in the public media coverage of the value of, and the efforts behind, the arts and aging movement.  What is the next step in getting the message out even further?

Teresa: Our grantees are playing a big role in this in their local communities. We’ve seen strong press coverage of the programs in a number of communities. National and regional associations of arts organizations will have the opportunity to help tell these stories. We hope to communicate more effectively with the aging services community, including senior housing, to bring these stories of change to many more. 

Ellen: Next Avenue, the PBS platform “where grownups keep growing,” has done a fabulous job of sharing stories of older adults’ excursions into art-making. We’ve made major grants to enable Next Avenue to add this topic as a regular part of their programming. You can read these inspiring stories at

Barry:  Much of the future of the movement to bring the arts to an aging population will depend on government policies, funding and general attitude.  Where do we stand in terms of organizing our advocacy and lobbying efforts in this arena?  Do you have any plans to mount a sort of Aroha’s Army of Arts Advocates to spearhead this kind of effort?

Ellen: What a great idea! We understand the importance of this, but we are a very small foundation and a truly organized policy advocacy initiative is beyond our scope. We could do much more to activate the advocacy of older adults – this population is ripe to contribute to this effort. Perhaps this is something that Americans for the Arts will embrace!

Barry:  What do you see as the biggest obstacles and barriers to increasing your successes, and where do you see the greatest opportunities to expand your successes further?

Teresa: We believe that ageism is at the root of the biggest challenges. Our current culture does not view older adults as creative, vital, interesting contributors. Age is generally equated with disease and decline, not a time of growth and opportunity. Sadly, as people age, they find themselves becoming invisible and viewed as irrelevant – this is a refrain that we hear over and over. As a result, programming designed to help older adults build their assets is simply overlooked.

  Funding is a big obstacle. Funders, like most others, often have ageist attitudes and don’t envision older adults as a priority – despite the fact that if being “older” starts at 55, it can be a 50-year span of time. State arts agencies have the opportunity to lead on this issue. Older adults should be considered of vital importance to their work, particularly given that within 20 years they will account for 1 in 4 or 5 people in this country.

 All of that said, it appears that this movement is trending upward. People who participate in these classes gain so much and want more – they will be advocates for its expansion. 

Barry:  If credible evidence can be mounted that the arts connection to health is valid, and those participating in arts programs are less likely to fall victim to at least certain kinds of illnesses and that they are likely to recover faster when ill, then it would seem that the insurance companies would be very likely willing funders of our efforts as their bottom lines would improve.  Have you or anyone representing the arts yet held any preliminary discussions with insurance companies about their support, and perhaps participation in the research?

Ellen: Again, this is a very good idea, Barry. We highly value research, but our emphasis is on program development, training, capacity-building and advocacy. Given our very small size, we have to stay focused, so this will be for another day. 

Barry:  In the beginning, you were somewhat of a lone voice funding the arts and aging area.  Where is the larger funding community at today in terms of joining your efforts and what are you doing, in addition to your presence and sessions at GIA, AFTA and other convenings and trainings, to recruit other funders?

Teresa: We are sharing the results of our work with other funders and cultivating relationships with those who are interested. We have invited a couple of funders to join us in the museums initiative and hope that they will get involved. Again, we think that state and local arts councils are key to prioritizing this work within the broader arts landscape. If they signal that this is a priority, we believe that their local philanthropic institutions will also begin to think about how they can contribute.

Barry:  Is there an overall or unifying strategy on your part to make sure all of the various arts disciplines are involved in arts and gaining programs and projects.  Not necessarily a quota system, but some kind of plan that systemically involves everyone - dance, theater, visual arts, museums, film, crafts, music?  

Teresa:  We have designed the initiatives and chosen grantees to showcase the ways these programs work with virtually every art form. It’s been a major criteria in choosing grantees, as has geographic and cultural diversity.

  Happily, the grantees have taken this and run with it. They have offered workshop series in so many art forms: jewelry making, 3D printing, graffiti art, songwriting, playwriting, ukulele, dance, video memoir, analog and digital photography, quilting, sculpting and so much more. 

When arts organizations think of programs for older adults, they sometimes think only of writing memoirs or singing songs from the 40s and 50s. While this appeals to many, it’s not for everyone. We want more, better programs!

Barry:  Is there a one stop Clearinghouse Website that incorporates all of the efforts and resources of all of the organizations working in the arts and aging field?  And if not, might that be a project you would consider underwriting?

Teresa: There really isn’t a one-stop shop at this point. We have tried to pull a lot of resources together on our website, including inspiring programs, supportive research, and more, but it is not the comprehensive website that you describe. Such a site would definitely have value, but we also recognize that it will be only as good as the work it takes to keep it updated and current. At this point, we’re not aware of an organization in a position to take this on, and I’m not sure the field is big enough to support yet another stand-alone service organization.

Barry:  Who or what impresses you for their work in this arena?   Where ought we be looking for ideas and inspiration beyond ourselves?

Ellen: We’re inspired by every person who has taken the leap into a creative life and wants to tell their story, as well as every organization that has stepped outside its comfort zone to offer this programming. For most people, this is new territory.

Several organizations have created lasting, vibrant programs, such as MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis, which enrolls hundreds of older adult students in group and individual classes; San Francisco Community Music Center, which has collaborated with the City’s aging services divisions and is now receiving city funding; Young@Heart Chorus in Massachusetts, which has been going strong since 1982 and is the subject of an amazing documentary; and Bihl Haus Arts, which has been offering arts programs in senior centers San Antonio, TX, since 2007.

Barry:  Where do you see Aroha in five years?

Ellen: Hopefully, Aroha will have brought in other funders who see the value of creative aging programing. Greater funding streams are critical to keep the work moving forward. We are always seeking innovative ways to bring the inspiring message of creative aging to the greater public. Innovative ways could mean we will have aligned our work with talented artists who believe creative aging is important in all of our lives. It would be wonderful if older adults could share/present their work alongside a known artist’s work in a public performance/exhibition. This would help disseminate the value of creativity to a much larger audience across the United States. We will have aligned ourselves with many, many more national, regional and local organizations who want to do this work. We will have more people in the game working alongside us. 

With what I have just written, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we weren’t needed in five years? Perhaps creative aging programs will become ubiquitous, and arts, senior service and senior residential organizations will know how to offer them successfully!

Thank you Ellen and Teresa.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit