Museums Embrace Art Therapy Techniques for Unsettled Times

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When the instructor asked him to describe his life in two words, Walter Enriquez chose carefully: fear and violence. He had spent decades as a policeman in Peru during the bloodiest days of armed conflict between government forces and guerrilla fighters that killed nearly 70,000 people. But he said that nothing could have prepared him for the extreme isolation and loneliness that come with quarantine. Having lost a handful of his friends and neighbors to the coronavirus pandemic, the 75-year-old retiree has turned toward art therapy programs offered by the Queens Museum to improve his mental health.

“We cannot go outside and enjoy our lives like before,” Mr. Enriquez said in Spanish, translated by his daughter. “But art helps us capture the past and relive positive experiences to get through pain and sadness.”

Every Thursday, he waits patiently at the computer for class to begin. For 30 minutes, he fidgets with the colored pencils, pens and papers at the desk inside his daughter’s apartment in Richmond Hill, Queens. And with those tools he creates scenes from his life based on prompts from his instructor: portraits of his mother and friends; images of Goyaesque, nightmarish demons representing disease that when rendered on paper feel less threatening.

Participants share their creations through Zoom, using their drawings and poetry (also part of the classes) to discuss life before and after the pandemic. Like thousands of other older New Yorkers, Mr. Enriquez has recently learned to use the internet to connect with the outside world. La Ventanita, one of the museum’s initiatives in response to the coronavirus pandemic, provides him a chance to socialize with other Spanish speakers through guided art lessons about self-expression.

ImageA drawing by Walter Enriquez, who participates in a Queens Museum program created in response to the pandemic. “Art helps us capture the past and relive positive experiences to get through pain and sadness,” he said.
A drawing by Walter Enriquez, who participates in a Queens Museum program created in response to the pandemic. “Art helps us capture the past and relive positive experiences to get through pain and sadness,” he said.Credit…via Walter Enriquez

“Before the program, I felt very alone; now I can learn to produce art,” he said, adding that the program has revived his childhood aspiration of becoming a poet through the weekly prompts that ask him to create poetry based on his youth.

Although psychologists have long recognized the benefits of art therapy, which decades of scientific research suggests can improve moods and reduce pain, few American museums have devoted resources toward creating programs. But the demands of a grief-stricken public are now compelling cultural institutions around the country to create trauma-aware initiatives that put their art collections and educators at the forefront of a mental health crisis created by the pandemic and the worldwide protests over police brutality and racism after George Floyd’s killing.

And faced with plummeting revenue projections, industry leaders say they wouldn’t be surprised if museums turned toward art therapy for a new source of revenue or other funding opportunities. “Art therapy is typically funded by insurers,” Dina Schapiro, assistant chairperson for the Pratt Institute’s Creative Arts Therapy Department, said. “You already have patrons coming into museums and paying a fee. It would be especially good for people who are resistant to the traditional venues of therapy like an office.”

Although it doesn’t plan to charge for such programs, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is looking to start art-therapy based initiatives. “We are adjusting to a new reality and looking into how we can use art history to reflect on shared experiences of isolation and trauma,” said Rebecca McGinnis, the museum’s senior managing educator for accessibility.

The Met plans to reopen as a safe space for New Yorkers in much the same way it did after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Curators are beginning to think about how exhibitions can be designed as trauma-aware to avoid triggering visitors. McGinnis has also prepared a running list of artworks that can help visitors soothe their post-Covid anxieties, including scenes of domestic tranquillity like Honoré Daumier’s “The Laundress” (1863), depictions of resilience like Faith Ringgold’s “Street Story Quilt” (1985), and memorials to the dead like a fifth century B.C. Greek grave stele of a little girl.


A 16th-century cloth painting of the Buddha meditating, one of many artworks suitable for self-contemplation at the Rubin Museum of Art.Credit…Rubin Museum of Art, Gift of Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation

And in May, the museum revamped a teen event to focus on self-care and communication during the coronavirus crisis. Organized with the Bronx Museum and the Museum of Chinese in America, participants discussed the effects of the pandemic through writing prompts, dance workshops and zine-making.

“Art has a therapeutic impact for everybody,” Ms. McGinnis said. “People will be coming to us after experiencing loss; some for whom the disease has permanently impacted their bodies. How can we continue to reflect all those human experiences?”

At the Rubin Museum of Art, employees have started to ask similar questions of their own collection of Tibetan and Nepalese objects perfectly suited for the art of self-contemplation. For now, the museum plans to restart its meditation podcast and gear some of its learning programs to those affected by Covid-19 with pensive artworks like a 13th-century gilded statue of the Hindu goddess Durga or a 16th-century cloth painting of the Buddha meditating as demonic hordes assail him from below.

Taking another approach, the Cincinnati Art Museum in Ohio plans to train more than a hundred volunteer docents on art therapy techniques that will help them greet visitors when it reopens this summer.

That museums are taking art therapy more seriously than ever is due in large part to a program at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts that allows physicians to prescribe free access to its galleries. The museum was also one of the first in North America to hire a full-time art therapist in 2017.

Stephen Legari, who took the job, normally sees about 1,200 participants each year, but demands for his services have increased as Montreal — the epicenter of Canada’s coronavirus outbreak — reopens. “In quarantine, you’re looking at the same things in your apartment every day,” he explained. “The repetition is grinding down your capacity to concentrate. By contrast, museums are places for wonderment, beauty and awe.”

Katerine Caron joined the art therapy program about three years ago. For much of her life, the 52-year-old writer has dealt with neurological damage and severe trauma after being hit by a speeding car while walking her children across the street. She eagerly awaits Wednesday group sessions. “I hadn’t created art since I was a child,” Ms. Caron said, “but art therapy has helped me externalize what I’m feeling and express my gratitude for life.”

For her, the therapy has created a space outside the pandemic for her to process difficult emotions. “I’m less anxious and agitated,” she said, adding, “When I see the works of other artists, I know that I’m not alone.”

When sorting through the museum’s collection for inspiration recently, Mr. Legari has shied away from contemporary works. Instead, he is drawn to images of natural beauty rendered by the Romantics and Impressionists. He also likes to incorporate more abstract works by artists like Henri Matisse and Georges Braque into his sessions.

Looking at what Montreal has accomplished, Sally Tallant, executive director of the Queens Museum, hopes that her institution can replicate that same sense of refuge for people. In the meantime, the museum’s educators are testing out a variety of initiatives. There are weekly conversations with homebound seniors about the institution’s collection, a program for caregivers to learn about art, and several live-video artmaking sessions for recent immigrants who don’t speak English, which are also offered in Mandarin.

“This is a time to consider museums as places of care,” Ms. Tallant said. “There is a need to develop porous cultural institutions that are open, inclusive and empathetic as we recover from living through a prolonged period of isolation and loss.”