Age and Creation

A practice journal of creative experience and aging

Where are the seniors?

Colina Maxwell, Executive Director, Centre[3] for Artistic + Social Practice

Centre[3] for Artistic + Social Practice is an artist-run centre that supports artists in the creation, production, presentation, and dissemination of contemporary art, and fosters engagement with the wider community through artistic social practice and research. Since its founding in 2004 as The Print Studio, Centre[3] has sought positive social change through artistic social practice among artists, community members, and organizations.

An artist-run centre (ARC) is a non-profit organization run by artists, for artists. They are artist-governed spaces for creation and exhibition designed to support visual and media arts.

ARCs become a vital part of the cultural landscape of a community by:

  • Supporting emerging artists that might not be shown in traditional galleries or museums,
  • Exhibiting experimental and innovative art curated from an artist-driven, open, and boundary-pushing perspective,
  • Engaging the public in art through events, workshops, and talks that allow participants to learn more about contemporary art and engage with artists directly, and
  • Advocating for artists by lobbying for funding and artist rights to create a healthy environment for the arts.

Centre[3] proudly exhibits local and international established and emerging artists in its main gallery, while showcasing local talent in the exclusive members’ gallery. Its studio boasts world-class traditional printmaking facilities and state-of-the-art digital media studios. Its retail space offers a platform for members to sell their art.

Beyond the walls of the studio, Centre[3]’s instructors are connecting the Hamilton-Wentworth communities through the arts through extensive education and outreach initiatives, and these programs continue to grow. Thousands of children and youth have benefited from Centre[3]’s innovative approach to teaching.

One sector of our community, though, has been conspicuously absent from our artistic and social practice programs. In 2017 we began an internal conversation to question why Hamilton’s aging community was not partaking in, or engaging with, visual art.

The James North Art Crawl, a free cultural event featuring galleries, music, and street activities on the second Friday of each month is very popular, but it sees very few visitors over the age of 65. Diversity and Arts Attendance by Canadians in 2010 (Hill Strategies, PDF) found that three demographic groups have a significantly lower arts attendance rate compared with other Canadians: people with disabilities, people who are racialized, and seniors.

Senors’ exclusion from arts engagement is especially concerning in the context of research increasingly showing a link between that engagement and improved wellness, like Stars and Catz’ extensive list of 235 studies linking benefits to music appreciation.

“Ample published research” indicates dance programs can help people with Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis (Live streaming dance class aims to help rural seniors avoid falls, CBC News) but, to the best of our knowledge at the time, no one was live streaming the visual arts. Whether it’s visiting a gallery from home and meeting the artist over Zoom or joining group-based art instruction for artmaking with materials you already have around the house, there was reason to believe that establishing new approaches to providing access to contemporary art would benefit seniors in important ways.

We proposed a three-year research project to the Canada Council for the Arts to work with older adults to create and evaluate interactive moments and experiences. We wanted people to not only receive information, like one would watching a video, but to engage and ask questions or express their likes and dislikes about the art they see.

The Administered Interactive Survey

In a three year project that kicked off during the winter before the global COVID-19 pandemic there were a lot of plans, pivots, challenges, and opportunities faced by a multidisciplinary, intergenerational project team. The activity I’d call the lynchpin of the project was a survey of older adults in our communities, to answer the question from an ARC’s perspective: Where are the seniors?

To be clear, the question is not “why are older adults not coming out to our great events that everyone seems to love?”, suggesting some change is needed among the older adults of which we speak. At its heart our question is more along the lines of “what is it about our events that isn’t so great for older adults?”

The experience of carefully seeking an answer was so valuable to Centre[3] as an ARC and to the project as a guidestar for five years of intervention and evaluation that, aside from sharing the findings of the survey research project, we want to share a how-to on the process. We want you to go out into the community and ask the older adults there what they think of contemporary art and artistic engagement and what they want and need.

In this issue of Age and Creation you’ll find:

  • Arts Experience and Needs Survey, an introduction and link to the research findings report from surveying older adults in Guelph, Hamilton, and London (Ontario, Canada)
  • Ask Your Seniors, a practical guide on adapting the survey we developed to your own community, which includes the actual questions, guidelines for adaptations you may want to consider, and considerations around resourcing, and
  • Introducing Seniors Art Link, an invitation to explore and participate in a community of practice and knowledge base in which we can share useful resources that arise from asking older adults about their artistic engagement.

Our research project was:

administered

We were fortunate to be able to engage older adults living in each of the three communities the project operated in (Guelph, Hamilton, and London) on the project team and working as consultants, interviewers, and researchers. This required significant skill development and mentoring, but permitted an administered survey, meaning that even though government and university mandates prevented us from having researchers and participants in the same room during the pandemic, all participants completed the survey in conversation with another older adult, not asynchronously and in isolation. In the majority of cases, this was done with screen sharing so both interviewer and participant could see the same view of the survey as it was filled out. Conversations were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed, and the interviewer input data to the survey on the participant’s behalf when that was requested.

interactive

Members of our centre provided artwork and art practice (paintings, installations, video, audio, recorded presentations, live presentations) and developers on our project team created digital experiences for artistic engagement (online galleries, narrated artist talks, decision-support tools) that we embedded into the survey to make it interactive. Participants were not only answering questions about themselves and past experiences, but also about experiences provided directly within the survey, which helped to prompt and provide a framework for deeper discussion of the possibilities of digitally mediated artistic experience.

a survey

To be able to provide quantitative and qualitative analysis of participants’ input, especially to be able to achieve a sense of agreement or prevalence of certain sentiments for the purposes of prioritizing interventions by expected impact, the research project was designed as a formal survey that would guide a conversation between interviewer and participant (rather than, for example, a less structured key informant interview model.)

conducted formally

An existing community networks and community resources (in addition to project funding) allowed the project team to seek and receive certification from a research ethics board under the guidance of our University partners. This required and resulted in a more formal research process during the survey activity that reduced risks to participants and interviewers, better addressed ethical considerations like consent and confidentiality that are outside many artists’ realm of experience, and leant additional credibility to findings.

Your project may be much different, depending on the time, money, and networks available to you. It is still of great benefit to embark on this project if you are looking to understand why older adults are underrepresented in your organization, and what you can do to change that pattern.

Colina Maxwell is a practicing visual artist and the co-founder and Executive Director of Centre[3] for Artistic + Social Practice. The centre has helped fuel a growing arts community in Hamilton. She meaningfully engages the core of our community through boundary-breaking contemporary art and pushing the barriers in presentation, education, and community arts. In 2011, Colina was awarded the City of Hamilton’s Arts Management award, and in 2013, she was awarded the Women of Distinction award for Art and Culture. As a feminist and an artist, Maxwell’s artwork is politically charged, exploring gender, social constructs, and labour.