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Museums’ Eclectic Collections Inspire Older Wisconsinites

A children’s museum, an institution specializing in contemporary craft exhibits, and a museum that focuses on art inspired by birds. They may not seem like they have much in common, but as part of the SPARK! program created by the Helen Bader Foundation, they’re providing engaging opportunities to Wisconsin’s older adults with Alzheimer’s disease.

The Foundation launched the SPARK! initiative as a tribute to Helen Bader’s personal interest in healthy aging. Helen used the arts to help those with Alzheimer’s disease build and maintain connections. To date, the Foundation has committed more than $100,000 for planning and implementation of SPARK! projects.

In 2009, representatives from five Wisconsin museums (Milwaukee Public Museum, Museum of Wisconsin Art, John Michael Kohler Art Museum, Racine Art Museum, and Woodson Art Museum) visited New York City’s Museum of Modern Art to learn about and train with leaders of its renowned “Meet Me at MoMA” program. The project gives older adults with Alzheimer’s disease or memory loss and their caregivers the chance to interact with and respond to artwork. It’s a way to stimulate the senses, and experience the unique emotional connections viewing artwork with others inspires.

The participants returned to Wisconsin energized and ready to work on similar projects in their own communities.

“We’ve often brought older adults into our educational programming,” said Tricia Blasko, education director at the Racine Art Museum. “The New York experience showed how working with people with Alzheimer’s opens up new opportunities. For our museum, it’s given us an opportunity to link with other agencies on such a wonderful project.”

Blasko worked with local healthy aging care providers and began a pilot project at the Racine Art Museum’s Wustum campus. A group of older adults was invited to the site to work with clay on their own projects. Museum facilitators also led stimulating discussions on the collection of Depression-era Works Progress Administration artworks, which spurred the memories of many participants.

Since the first New York City trip in 2009, the program has grown to include museums throughout Wisconsin and the upper Midwest. By 2010, five additional museums began their MoMa training and planning including Maritime Heritage Museum and Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts in Minnesota, and the Milwaukee County Historical Society, Racine County Historical Society and Museum, Madison Children’s Museum and the Rahr-West Museum.

The results so far seem to be very positive. In fact, Blasko said participants embraced the program at the Racine Art Museum. “I knew we were really on to something good when, after a two-week break, one returning participant almost immediately asked, ‘when do I get my clay back?’”