Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Most Important Trend in Arts Programming in the Past Five Years. Are you on it?

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

PART I on the Creative Aging Movement

From an article in the Washington Post:
Vivian Lewis was captain of her high school’s cheerleading squad in 1966, but she stopped cheering when she went to college and got married. Three daughters, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren later, she’s back to performing — but now she’s doing scream-making, sweat-dripping, hip-shaking hip-hop — in front of thousands of people. 
Lewis, 71, is part of Wizdom, the Washington Wizards’ new dance troupe — with members who are all 50 and older — that was created to whip up fans at Capital One Arena.
“The first performance that they did, you would have thought that we won the game,” said Derric Whitfield, Wizdom’s director. 
Wizdom’s 20 members, ages 50 to 76, bring a new choreographed routine for seven of the season’s 40 home games. They dance mostly during timeouts, while the Wizards’ regular dance troupe, the Wizards Dancers, perform at halftime and other breaks during the game.   “What I want to prove with this team is, everyone can dance,” Whitfield said. “Dance is for people of all ages.”

All over the country, arts organizations are replicating this kind of thing - programming for seniors in arts disciplines from dance to theater, choral groups to opera, storytelling to creative writing.  And this creative aging programming has become one of the most important and encouraging trends in arts programming over the past five years


Because these diverse programs are engaging dramatically increasing numbers of seniors in communities across the country, and those seniors are spreading the word with rave reviews as to the positive impacts, and because there is a plethora of benefits to the participating organizations.

This thrust has two components:  1) the impact of arts participation in actual creativity on the health of people - both as a preventative medical intervention and as a possible protocol for healing from illness and post surgery - of which the jury is still out as to its efficacy, though significant increased research is encouraging that the arts have a real impact on health; and 2) direct participation in creating art - in a variety of disciplines - is succeeding dramatically in improving the well being, joy, social health and purpose for seniors.

it is in the second category that the phenomenal growth has occurred, as so many arts organizations - and private sector companies, as seen above = are now offering this kind of programming, we are near a tipping point where such programs are fast becoming ubiquitous.

I am a septuagenarian, and have had a variety of health issues over the past five years.  I don't sing, paint, dance or find accomplishment on the stage.  The written word is my canvas, and writing has brought me untold rewards and satisfaction, and, I am convinced, has positively impacted my health and general sense of wellbeing.  The act of creative writing, for me, has helped me in countless ways to navigate growing older - so I readily admit to a bias in favor of this kind of programming.  I don't know the depth and extent the act of writing has on my health issues, but I do know that it gives me a deep sense of satisfaction and a direct sense of involvement; it connects me with my community, and keeps my mind engaged.

The difference between these programs, and prior efforts to program for seniors, is that the newer programming targeting seniors involves real skills training and teaching artists at their core.  They have as their hallmark the abiding respect for the senior participants as potential artists, and treat them as such.  The professional training and serious approach differs from past programming, which was too often a dismissive afterthought or add-on to keep seniors occupied.  Seniors in these programs are encouraged to learn technique and advance skills to their creativity in the area they choose.  And it is precisely because these programs have set a high bar, and involve standards, that they have been so remarkably successful.

For arts organizations, the rewards of engaging in this area are many:  As the stated purpose of our organizations is to connect art and artists with their community, expanding their offerings to seniors is a no-brainer.  Virtually every community has a senior segment - a segment often times previously given short shift.  While we have forever tried to include seniors in access to the arts - particularly as audiences for our work - the creative aging effort seeks to involve them in the creative process - as dancers, actors, painters, film makers, craftsmen and women, musicians, singers, writers and storytellers and more.  And not just as neophytes, but as professionally trained and guided artists in their own right.  These programs don't just provide materials and space; they offer professional, sequential training.

Moreover, organizations which have developed these programs have seen an increase in audience building, increases in donors and supporters, more active arts advocates,  expanded community collaboration and funding leverage opportunities [with libraries, senior centers, nursing homes and community centers], increases in their volunteer base, and greater public appreciation of, and interest in, the discipline of the organizations involved.  In short, these programs are win-win, for both the participants, who gain proficiency in a discipline, experience the joy and satisfaction of creativity, both as a process and end result, and who expand their social network and self-esteem - though clearly more research to categorize and inventory the specific benefits is needed, as we are really still in the embryonic stage of what is fast becoming a movement,, and for the organizations which are finding that these programs deepen and expand their reach into communities, generate seniors as supporters, audiences and advocates, build good will, and generate positive media attention.

Seniors, as a group, are very effective advocates for two reasons;  First they have time to be active, and Second, they vote.  Politicians listen to them.  Seniors involved in these programs are real and potential advocates for public support for the arts - a potential army of lobbyists that can make a difference in political support for the arts.

There is considerable and growing research on the benefits of creative aging programs for seniors, and the beginnings of an avalanche of media coverage on such programming, those who run them, and those who participate in them -- confirming that the effort is fast becoming a phenomenon.  As we are now well into the Baby Boomer march towards seniority, this trend is only likely to expand.

And these programs seem to work well for both large and small arts organizations, in every discipline.  And they likely benefit our field as a whole.  I would encourage every arts organization to explore the possibilities of launching their own individualized arts aging program.

For the last several months, I have been reading about these programs and doing preliminary research on how they operate, what they are attempting to do, and how they have succeeded in their efforts.  There are a number of national service provider organizations and funders that have helped to spawn the growth in the area, as well as literally hundreds of organizations that are now offering such programming.

I have contacted the Aroha Philanthropies - one of the prime movers at the forefront of this movement - to ask their help in identifying representative organizations that have launched creative aging programming in their Vitality Arts program, so that I might interview the leaders in these organizations to ascertain their experience in developing, launching and managing these efforts, including some commentary from the senior participants as to their take-aways - with an eye to encouraging all arts organizations across the country - from state and local agencies, to symphonies, theater and dance companies, choral groups, museums, libraries, and more - to seriously consider formulating their own creative aging programming.  I wanted to find out, from these organizations, what the obstacles and barriers were to jumping into the field, how easy or difficult their launch and management of the programs were, what worked well and what didn't, their assessment of the results, and their level of satisfaction at having taken the plunge, and their future plans in the area -- so as to give those organizations not yet involved a sense of what to expect - hoping that would be encouraging.

Aroha's Seeding Vitality Arts program was launched in December of 2017 as a three year National Impact Demonstration Initiative in collaboration with Lifetime Arts, for projects that would "champion arts programs that keep us vital, joyful and engaged  by unleashing the transformative power of creativity in those fifty-five plus, enabling older adults to learn, make and share and share the arts in ways that are novel, complex and socially engaging.  Driven by teaching artists in the program design and facilitation, and based on sound principles of arts education, the funded projects included a wide variety of organizations and in diverse locations.  The program sought projects that built skills in an art form, included social interaction among the participants and which had the potential for replication and sustainability.   An important component of the program was for each participating organization to include, at the end of the training offering for seniors, a public performance or exhibition.  Including this end piece helped to frame the whole effort as a professional effort with the goal of sharing the finished works publicly.

In an excellent Report authored by David Scheie and Nan Kari of the Touchstone Center for Collaborative Inquiry commissioned by Aroha, as a Midterm Evaluation to review all of their Vitality Arts grantees, the authors found that:  [Demographic findings are based on responses from 1,057 participants in 65 programs across the 15 organizations.]

  • Most participants were “younger old” adults: the largest number were ages 65-74, and another 20% were ages 55-64.  However,  23% were ages 75-84, and 15% were age 85 or older.
  • At two organizations (the library and the dance company), 40% or more of their participants were younger than 65. At the two residential facilities, most participants were age 75 or older.
  • While most of these older adults reported no mobility issues or disabilities, about a third said they have some such challenges and a small number reported many mobility issues or disabilities. Again, these were more common at the classes held at older adult residences.
  • 34% reported some mobility issues/disabilities
  • 3% reported many mobility issues/disabilities.
  • Yet 63% reported No mobility issues/disabilities, 
  • The great majority of participants were women.  Two organizations had 30% or more men, and three others had 5% or fewer men.  Male, 16%  Female, 84%
  • In most locations, most participants identified themselves as White or Caucasian. The racial and ethnic composition of programs largely reflected the communities where programs occurred. Programs in Albuquerque, Newark, New York City and Philadelphia had substantial numbers of Black or Latino participants, as did some programs in Birmingham, AL. Overall, about five in six participants were White, with most of the others either Latino or African American. Race or ethnicity of participants: African American, 6% Hispanic/ Latino, 8% Other, 2% Asian/ Pacific Islander, 1%.  White, 83%
The demographics of program participants likely reflected the audiences of the host organization.  
There seems no reason why these programs wouldn't also succeed in communities of LGBTQ and communities of color, and that the demand for them would be high.  As seniors in these communities are often underserved, I would hope these kinds of programs might be launched by arts organizations either in these communities or which serve them.  

Mobility, participant recruiting, compensating professional teaching artists, program management and program launch are all important issues with which to contend, yet all the participating organizations surveyed in the Aroha Vitality Arts program addressed these challenges successfully.  Aroha has since launched two more cohorts, one for Minnesota based organizations, and the second for 20 museums across the country in collaboration with the American Alliance of Museums.

Next week I will report on the general feedback of the participants in these and similar programs, and cite some other similar efforts to give you a sense of what these programs can do.

I have conducted interviews with seven of the organizations that launched programs under the Aroha Vitality Arts banner, and solicited feedback from the senior participants, and will post those interviews and feedback spread over the next couple of months so that you might know directly from those involved how they created their programming and how it succeeded.

Finally, after I have posted all of the interviews, I will post a summary of the efforts, together with a list of resources that you might tap into in launching your own creative aging program.

My hope is that you can use this material as you consider engaging in creative aging programming, both internally, as to how to design and implement that effort, and to find collaborative partners, leverage funding, and succeed at community outreach.

This is a bandwagon your organization seriously needs to think about getting on.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit