Exploring the Art & Health Intersection

Flash back to 2014, when the Museum’s Public Engagement department first proposed “projects in art therapy, and art-and-health as healing” as part of its HeARThstone Project master plan. Today, in 2019, we have delivered on that promise to expand access to art as a means of fostering healthy living. Programs such as Art Can and our newly launched Memory Café improve the quality of life for those who participate. Studies of similar programs in museums across the country have shown a variety of health and wellness benefits.

By engaging support organizations like the Phoebe Institute on Aging (PIA), Fellowship Community, Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network, and the United Way and art institutions like ARTZ Philadelphia, the Michener Art Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), we are out front exploring, on behalf of our community, the intersection of art and health


Enhancing (and Helping to Recall) Life

The elderly couple strolls hand in hand through the gallery, stopping to study the Peter Gross painting Essegney, Near Charmes, Vosges, France, 1892, of a bucolic French countryside. Prompted by a docent, the man, whose memory is fading, marvels that the sun, cows, and pasture in the scene give him a soothing sense of happiness and peace. The man is with a group of seniors from an area long-term care facility who struggle with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Some join the discussion during the tour; some just listen. This kind of social outing is rare and wonderful for the couple, as the husband lives in a special-care unit for the memory impaired while his wife lives at home. “It’s like being on a date!” she exclaims.

The intersection of art and health in Allentown is found here at the Art Museum every second and fourth Tuesday of the month, when the healing power of art is enhanced for a select audience in a free program called Art Can.

Abby Simmons, the Museum’s adult and college programs coordinator, started Art Can as a pilot program in 2018. She cites research that explains how art benefits people with dementia. “It reduces isolation, sparks fading memories, prompts conversations, and encourages social interaction,” she says. The program is supported through the generosity of the Donald B. and Dorothy L. Stabler Foundation and the Keystone Savings Foundation, and by the Barbara and Maxwell Davison Fund for Alzheimer’s Care of the Lehigh Valley Community Foundation.

“I think it’s really great,” says Kaitlyn Beisel, a therapy aide from Cedarbrook Senior Care & Rehabilitation who recently led a group to the Museum, “to get the stimulation for their brains and also the social aspect of coming here. Talking to the volunteers is huge. It gets them out from what their routine is at the nursing home.”

On this day, Art Can participants move on to the brass Henry Bertoia sculpture with dozens of flexible vertical bars anchored at one end to a base. With the brush of a hand, the docent—all Art Can docents are specially trained Society of the Arts (SOTA) volunteers—makes them clang and reverberate, to the delight of the group. Some say they hear church chimes, some wind, one a grandfather clock. “It’s always a hit,” Simmons says.

Art Can seeks to engage this audience in art, to stimulate their senses, thoughts, and memories. Twice a month these tours explore the Museum for ninety minutes. Participants and their caregivers are first escorted through the Museum by a specially trained staff member or volunteer.

Later, the touring is individual or with assistance from a volunteer. The wife says the program helps the couple recapture happier times of their courtship and marriage, even if briefly. For the husband, the Gross painting has left an impression—he says he would like to visit the setting where it was created. That gives her hope that future Art Can visits might enable them to create new moments to cherish.


What’s Brewing at the Café?

The Museum’s new Memory Café is the place where people with dementia and their caregivers and loved ones can gather to talk, learn, and share information and experiences relating to art appreciation and other hobbies and interests. These free support groups meet in the Museum every third Monday this fall, September through December, and are designed for persons who still live at home.



Is it a stretch to combine yoga and art appreciation? Not at the Museum, where on the second Saturday of each month, September through December,  from 11 a.m. to noon, visitors of all ages will be bending, twisting, and slowing down as they discover their inner yogi. Yoga in the Galleries was started in 2017 as one of the Museum’s first programs in its Art & Health initiative and continues this fall.

A Healthier Community Through Art

In our ongoing focus of promoting the arts to enhance the health of our community, along with offering programs such as Art Can and the Memory Café, the Museum is engaging groups of residents to quickly brainstorm, evaluate, and develop effective programs to remove obstacles preventing the well-being of our neighbors.

With funding from the Rider-Pool Foundation supporting this “rapid-prototyping process,” and inspired by documented successes by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Society for the Arts in Healthcare, we seek to impact social determinants like housing, food insecurity, mental illness, and transportation.

“Fostering the connection between art and health, through the generosity of the Rider-Pool Foundation, is just one of several exciting initiatives the Museum is undertaking to positively impact our community through teaching, inspiring, engaging, and transforming our diverse, and often at-risk, audiences,” says Museum President and CEO David Mickenberg. “The future of our Art & Health initiative rests on this innovative approach to creating a healthier community.”

For more information on Art Can, the Memory Café, or yoga please contact Abby Simmons at 610-432-4333 ext. 133 or asimmons@allentownartmuseum.org.