The 50 Year Reunion: Considering Adults 55 and Better as an Essential Audience in the Art Museum

The 50 Year Reunion: Considering Adults 55 and Better as an Essential Audience in the Art Museum

Morgan Wells, Xoe Fiss
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-7426-3.ch014
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By 2035, the aging population will be larger than that of people 18 and younger. More than ever, art museums must consider how to best serve this audience. Research on the development of aging adults highlights that creative aging programming provides a beneficial impact on the lives of older adults while helping to combat ageism and redefine how older adults are seen in cultural institutions. This chapter reviews the similarities and differences between the programming for adults 55 and older at the Tucson Museum of Art, a mid-size regional institution, and The John Michael Kohler Arts Center, a rural, contemporary arts center. Through an analysis of the two institutions' programs for older adults, the authors discuss how older adults can fulfill the roles of visitor, participant, and learner when presented with equitable and intentional opportunities.
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Art museum educators consider many factors when planning a class, workshop, group visit, or larger event. What exhibitions are on view? What is the budget? How will it be marketed? However, few educators planning a program for adults ask: What is their age?

While children’s programming is often planned based on age divisions, adults are more often considered as one group. For example, summer camps are a staple program for many art museums. Parents and guardians register their children for developmentally appropriate, arts-based camps based on their age. Adults ages eighteen and up rarely can find the same kind of extensive menu of options to learn with people at the same stage in their lives. If a ten-year-old can join a group of their peers in a class, what does that look like for a sixty-year-old?

It is a typical assumption that development is for kids, and that as we age, we begin to experience loss of ability (Cohen, 2005, pp. 29-30). For most adults, this is the opposite of the truth. The brain continues to develop as one ages, providing opportunity for growth, sharing wisdom, and learning new abilities. Dr. Gene Cohen (2005) explains that there are four developmental phases of late life: midlife reevaluation, liberation, summing up, and encore. Each phase offers insight for educators to consider when shaping creative aging programming and opportunities for older adults. As with any age group, “Real life—and real people—are always more complicated than the neat structures we can create in books” (p. 54). It is not necessary to divide adults into categories based upon these phases, but it is essential that art museum educators are aware of the developmental needs of older adults and how creative aging programming can create a positive ripple effect throughout the community.

This knowledge will become more relevant in years to come. By 2035, the aging population will be larger than that of people 18 and younger (American Alliance of Museum, 2020). Without a formal education system for adults, organizations like art museums depend on older adults to voluntarily participate in programs (Zakaras & Lowell, 2008, p. 55). Supported by research proving that arts programming with a long enough duration to allow for mastery and relationship building provides the most benefits to the aging brain (Cohen, 2005, pp.148, 181), it is time to rethink the importance of offering low and no-cost multi-visit engagements for older adults at art museums, and make andragogy, the practice of teaching adults learners, a priority for museum educators.

Part of supporting a holistic wellbeing is educating and guiding older adults on how to build a balanced “social portfolio” (Cohen, 2005, p.146). Understanding that there are both activities that are beneficial to do in isolation and activities that are important to have the support and camaraderie of a group. Older adults face barriers beyond understanding what creates their social portfolio. While they may want to be involved, learning opportunities usually have a fee involved that can be prohibitive to many (Cohen, 2005, p.153). Additionally, if the adult has not been exposed to the arts or feels that the arts are not important to their life, they will not seek out arts-based learning opportunities on their own (CFM, 2010). Arts organizations, “cannot be expected to attract and educate those who have no inclination to seek the arts experiences they offer” (Zakaras & Lowell, 2008, p.63). It needs to become a norm for art museums to offer creative aging programs in order to shift this narrative.

Another typical assumption of older adults is that many live-in assisted living facilities. In reality, in 2016 only 3.1% of adults 65 and over live in institutional settings (Administration from Community Living, 2017). This may not change the fact that many older adults require additional accommodations, such as consideration for acoustics, larger print, and accessibility to an elevator, but these are small shifts that can benefit all visitors, not just older adults. Lifetime Arts, an organization that “connects the people, funding, ideas and strategies necessary to increase the number and quality of professional arts programs for older adults” (Lifetime Arts, 2020), emphasizes the importance of using an “assets based approach”. In an assets based approach, programs are designed looking at aging as a time of opportunity, potential, and being active in contrast to a “deficits based approach” which looks at aging as a period of decline and disability (Lifetime Arts, 2020). This shift in planning for any institution is essential in combating ageism and providing beneficial programming to older adults.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Docents: Volunteer art facilitators typically at an art museum.

Memory Loss: The loss of one’s memory caused an accident, but often associated with disease like dementia.

Andragogy: The science and theories behind how adults learn.

Social Engagement: In art museums, providing opportunities that cultivate meaningful relationships and a better understanding of one’s community.

Lifelong Learning: A learner that embraces that learning happens throughout one’s life. Often programming for adults are geared towards lifelong learners.

Equitable: Providing accommodations and intentional opportunities to ensure visitors are offered equal access to experiences.

Audience-Centered: Providing equitable and accessible opportunities keeping the visitor in mind.

Creative Aging Programs: Arts-based programming for 55+ audiences where adults benefit from activities planned for their developmental needs that provide scaffolding, sequential programs that foster mastery and social connection.

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