Discovery in the Desert (Janet's Blog)

(2-8-2011) There are two GIAs: Grantmakers in Aging and Grantmakers in the Arts. Two weeks ago, we came together to sponsor "Discovery in the Desert: Creativity and Healthy Aging," a daylong regional workshop for funders in Phoenix, AZ. The Metlife Foundation inspired and funded this collaboration, which also includes the National Center on Creative Aging. The event on January 27 was the first of three that we'll do together. The second is GIArts' Thought Leader Forum on Arts and Aging in Washington DC, April 6th and the third is another GIAging regional workshop at MOMA in New York City on May 3.

The workshop was held at the Desert Botanical Gardens outside Phoenix hosted by the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust. I was there last year when Dale Chihuly's glass pieces complimented the incredible landscape. The curator of that exhibit informed us that the Chihuly exhibit (which was stunning) doubled their donations and their memberships to the Garden. One more example of how art enhances and makes connections across sectors in our communities.

Here's what I discovered in the desert. Presenter after presenter discussed how artists and arts-centric programs are enhancing and making connections for healthy aging around the country. Kenneth Golden, Senior Advisor for the Kenneth A. Picerne Foundation (not an arts funder by mission) described their highly successful Artist Outreach Grant program. They give individual grants to artists over the age of 55 to work with nonprofit organizations. Utilizing these grants, artists of all disciplines are sharing their years of experience with underserved populations in southern California. This program has made arts supporters out of this Foundation whose primary mission is social service.

The next presenter blew my mind. (Can I say that in 2011?). Anyway, he did. Tim Carpenter is Founder and Executive Director of EngAGE: Lifelong Learning Through the Arts in Senior Housing in Los Angeles. EngAGE is a nonprofit "that transforms aging and the way people think about aging by turning affordable senior apartment communities into vibrant centers of learning, wellness and creativity." Sign me UP!! Tim is doing for the retired community what Kelly Lindquist did in the late 80s for artist live-work spaces with his organization Artspace. EngAGE has now become developers in addition to programmers.

Enter the theatre. Jorge Merced's is Associate Artistic Director of Pregones Theater in the Bronx. Their theatre company performs only original work, researched and written by the company. One of their areas of focus is senior centers and housing units where they meet with residents, get their stories, produce theatre for and with them. Jorge's message resonated with me and I'll paraphrase: it's about spending time getting to know people, having them trust you and then asking them to share their lives. Through his theatre, Jorge has enriched these people's lives and given credence to their stories. Ed Friedman, Co-founder and Executive Director of Lifetime Arts, also traveled from New York City to present and to work with Julie Richards of the West Valley Arts Council on developing arts programs for the aging community around Phoenix. Ed and his Lifetime Arts co-founder Maura O'Malley have created highly successful programs in libraries, which are age-neutral and courses for seniors with teaching artists. Bill Benson, Principal, Health Benefits ABCs served was facilitator for the day and inspired questions and solutions from participants and presenters.

It was a great discovery in the desert. As baby boomers retire or move into secondary careers, the arts can and will play an important part of their lives, whether we are talking about aging artists and their continued role in education and art-making or the general population who will use artistic endeavors to engage themselves in their communities and stay healthier. The opportunities for artists, arts organizations and entities focused on aging to make a difference in communities through these kinds of programs are limited only by our own creativity. Let's all go out demanding to live our older years the way we started: singing, role-playing, dressing up, dancing and drawing pictures. Sounds like healthy aging to me.