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July/August 2009 Issue

Creative Connections — Art Museums Reach Out to Persons With Disabilities
By Pamela Carter-Birken
Social Work Today
Vol. 9 No. 4 P. 16

Social workers and educators have long espoused the virtues of their clients making art. For persons with developmental disabilities, creating art provides an avenue for self-expression that may go untapped in their everyday lives. Some U.S. art museums understand that persons with developmental disabilities can go beyond making art in the safety of their day programs or residential centers. Given a chance, they may enjoy lessons in art history, touring museum collections, or making art in workshops on museum premises. In fact, according to social workers involved in art museum programs, their clients thrive from the respect and encouragement offered by museum personnel.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art are forerunners in providing accessibility to people with mobility, hearing, or visual impairments. They, along with many of the nation’s other museums, give people with disabilities the opportunity to experience art along with everyone else.

But The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art have gone further in combining art-making workshops with art appreciation tours designed specifically for persons with developmental disabilities. Within the two museums, there are several programs for persons with disabilities. Social workers may find the Offsite Discoveries program in New York and the Form in Art program in Philadelphia of particular interest as models for serving their clients.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Rebecca McGinnis, who oversees Access programs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, explains that Offsite Discoveries grew out of the Metropolitan’s 20-year-old Onsite Discoveries program. Onsite Discoveries is still being offered for persons with learning and developmental disabilities and their families and friends. “There’s always a particular theme,” McGinnis says. “We spend part of the time in the galleries, often sketching as well as discussing works of art, and then there’s always a component so the participants can make a work of art.”

McGinnis explains that prior to the inception of Offsite Discoveries, group homes and day centers often asked to participate in the on-site program, but there was a very high rate of no shows. Often, the person who contacted the museum was not the one to actually bring the group there. McGinnis says the Metropolitan decided to make it easier for the social services organizations by going to them instead. The Metropolitan now sends an educator to the site with a tailor-made presentation that includes replicas of works from the museum and other handling materials. For art making at the site, the Metropolitan educator brings paint, clay, and other materials, which are left at the site so participants can continue their art making.

“Since Offsite Discoveries, we’ve found an increase in social services organizations bringing people to the museum for follow-up tours,” McGinnis says. “We’ve gone to their place, and then they feel more connected to the museum. We’ve also been working with staff at the sites to make them feel empowered and comfortable to bring groups to the museum and lead the groups.”

Nitza Danieli Horner, an educator for the Offsite Discoveries program, believes the strength of museum programs for persons with developmental disabilities is that with observations of art and art making, there is no right or wrong. “We create a dialogue where everyone is equal,” Horner says. “No one can mess up.”

Denise Lalande-Phipps, LMSW, assistant director for FEGS Health and Human Services System in New York, has watched Horner teach persons with developmental disabilities. Founded by the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies (now UJA-Federation of New York), FEGS aims to maximize each individual’s potential to achieve his or her maximum level of dignity and independence. “We want our consumers to learn skills and learn about themselves—and we like to learn about them,” Lalande-Phipps says. “Nitza would bring items from the museum when she came to visit us at our site. She is very multisensory and included touch and smell in her presentations, which our individuals appreciated.”
Lalande-Phipps believes another benefit of Offsite Discoveries is community inclusion. “Our individuals now have opportunities to go to the Met, which is an amazing place in itself. But now they get to go to an exhibit for a guided tour especially for them. To be seen as a tourist group instead of a group of people with disabilities takes community inclusion to a different level,” she says.

Lalande-Phipps encourages other social workers to use museums as a way of accomplishing goals. Offsite Discoveries is often a component of the six-month individual life plans she devises for clients. The program contributes to skill development not just from the art tours and art making but also from the travel to and from the museum. “You can even develop a curriculum around an art museum program if it becomes a regular thing,” she says.

Emily Barbera, a client at the FEGS Manhattan Developmental Day Service, has participated in the Offsite Discoveries program at the FEGS site and at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Barbera says she enjoyed hosting the opening of an art gallery at FEGS, where she exhibited a paper bag sculpture in the “Heads and Faces” show. Barbera speaks with excitement about visiting The Metropolitan Museum of Art and about art making. “I like to make things,” she says. “I like coloring.” For the FEGS art gallery opening, Barbera designed her paper bag creation with scissors and rubber bands. “I used a pink rubber band for the woman, for her lips,” she says. At the museum, she says her favorite part is what is already on the walls: “I like the paintings.”

AHRC New York City serves 11,000 individuals with intellectual disabilities and other developmental disabilities, as well as their families. Darinka Vlahek, MA, is the family-owned social services agency’s director of curriculum development for adult day services. “From childhood to adulthood, individuals with disabilities were not given a chance to explore,” she says. “With the museum, our people really flourish. They open up with art.”

From Horner and other Metropolitan educators, Vlahek says AHRC’s staff has learned to let clients explore. “Let’s say they are in a photography group. Prior to Offsite Discoveries, our staff would press the button or set up the focus for our individuals. Now they let them experiment on their own. Nitza was a very good model to our staff. She taught them to stay back and not underestimate people with disabilities,” Vlahek explains.

During an AHRC tour at the Metropolitan, Horner was assisted by a coguide who was unable to verbalize and instead used a DynaVox device to communicate about an exhibit on ancient Egypt. “Our individuals were amazed,” Vlahek says. “We have a few individuals who use DynaVox or similar communication devices. Two of them later asked us if they could coteach with Nitza or at another museum the same way. We are now working with Nitza and some other educators, so our individuals can communicate what they like and how they feel about a particular exhibit.” The two AHRC clients will be coteaching at the Bronx Community College Hall of Fame for Great Americans.
Philadelphia Museum of Art.

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Street Thoma manages a number of accessible programs for persons with developmental disabilities. A sculptor, Thoma believes the development of social skills and facilitation of social relationships is just as important as the art. In Form in Art, a program for legally blind adults, Thoma will often take 25 to 30 minutes to describe a painting in the museum’s collections. “You can create descriptions for blind persons so they can participate with sighted people in discussions about the art,” Thoma says. “It’s about inclusion and making the effort.”

Form in Art combines art history and art making in a 26-session course that culminates in an annual exhibition open to the public. Thoma emphasized that participants in Form in Art take responsibility for what they get out of the program. “Volunteers will help with the art making, but the visitors are responsible for their own art projects,” Thoma says. “Not only does the program offer a connection to the community, but a critical piece of it is self-expression, not just with their art, but also with other people.”

Michael Gieschen has been participating in the Form in Art program for more than eight years. “I can express myself the way I feel I was meant to express myself,” he says. “Also, I like the social aspect. I could do my art in my basement—I think a lot of people who are disabled tend to stay at home where they feel comfortable—but it’s really good to get out and be with other people. Another thing is you inspire each other; you talk about techniques and about ideas.”

Gieschen describes an idea he brought to fruition: “I wanted to make a sea captain from the Revolutionary times, with the cocked hat and the whole nine yards. I decided to do it not full size but half size, so 3-ft tall instead of 6-ft tall. To work with clay, it needs to be soft enough to be pliable but not so dry that it will crack and harden. So I had to figure out a way to make this clay do what I wanted it to do. The hardest part was making the coat. You can’t make it too thick, or it will explode in the kiln. I think I ended up staying up two nights in a row, just holding the clay so it would dry in the place I wanted it to.”

Bette Homer, MS, life skills educator at Associated Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Philadelphia, has been involved in accessible programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for many years. She talks about how one of her clients participated in Form in Art and went on to win a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. “When you think of artwork, you think of visual things,” Homer says, “but that is not the whole spectrum of what artwork is.”

Homer explains that Thoma and his staff understand what enables her clients to thrive. “No one else gets to go on their tour. They are all visually impaired people, so it’s safe. The expectations are realistic: ‘Eventually, I may have to learn how to get to the restroom, but no one expects me to do that in the beginning.’ This is their place where they learn something new and exciting. Their family doesn’t go with them. It’s their adventure.”

Homer, herself visually impaired, says she looks forward to participating in the Form in Art program when she retires.

Advice From Museum Educators
Beth Schneider is considered a pioneer in marrying social services programs with art museums. Formerly of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, she now heads the education department of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. “The key is partnerships. No museum can do this on their own because museums have an expertise in art but tend not to have an expertise in working with social service populations,” Schneider says. “Success in social services partnerships depends on the basic ethos of the museum, the creativity of the staff, the leadership of the museum director, and a supportive board of trustees.”

Thoma and McGinnis believe you don’t have to live in or near a major city to develop relationships between social services programs and art museums. Thoma advises social workers to call their local museum and ask if they have tours or art-making programs for persons with disabilities. If not, Thoma says to start small and ask if you may help them create a tour for your clients. For example, the National Arts and Disability Center of UCLA can offer ideas.

Homer thinks it’s worth the effort. “I’ve seen art programs give my clients a new perspective on who they are and on what they can do,” she says. “Maybe some of them will go on to other challenges that are a little scarier.”

— Pamela Carter-Birken is a senior advisor in the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Administration on Developmental Disabilities
The Administration on Developmental Disabilities (ADD) is committed to the idea that the American dream belongs to everyone. Its mission, and the mission of its grantees, is to help individuals with developmental disabilities in their pursuit of the American dream.

ADD provides leadership and financial support to specific types of entities in every state and territory, which then assist individuals with developmental disabilities of all ages to achieve independence, be included, and contribute to the full range of community life (authorized under the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 2000). ADD also administers the disability grant programs that address access to voting in federal elections by individuals with the full range of disabilities (authorized under the Help America Vote Act of 2002).

Grantees focus on areas such as employment, health, education and early intervention, housing, transportation, childcare, recreation, and quality assurance. How many of these areas a grantee invests in, how much it invests, and what it does with the ADD funds it receives is influenced by what individuals with developmental disabilities in its state tell the grantee through public forums and other means of input.

For more information, visit www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/add.


For more information on art museum programs and how you can get started in your town, contact the following:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Phone: 212-879-5500, ext. 3561
E-mail: access@metmuseum.org
Web: www.metmuseum.org

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Phone: 215-684-7601
Web: www.philamuseum.org

The National Arts and Disability Center
Web: http://nadc.ucla.edu