Choosing to enjoy the considerable and easy access to art we have at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in the city of Melbourne is everyone’s prerogative. Their values are all about ‘access, excellence and integrity’ and their mission, as custodians of the State’s collection of fine and decorative arts, is “to illuminate life by collecting, conserving and presenting great art.”
The arts are a wonderful way of making life more bearable for a great many people from all walks of life, backgrounds, creeds and cultures.
They can trigger a truly creative response from many. Dancing to the radio, singing in the shower, grabbing a fistful of crayons and drawing to music, art is an important conduit linking us all.
The aim of the NGV is to always ensure they are being inclusive of artists, visitors, employees, volunteers and contractors, especially when they visit their two galleries; NGV International on St Kilda Road, and the NGV Australia, sited in the Ian Potter building opening onto Melbourne’s iconic public space, Federation Square.
To achieve their goals daily the NGV focus on ensuring they are meeting each emerging challenge by using creative innovative solutions to the many challenges they face in presenting art in the public domain. The idea is to not only attain the needs of all people to the best of their ability, but also to ensure they are enhancing access to their excellent facilities and services for all.
The Melbourne Now contemporary exhibition over the summer of 2013, 2014 has been all about conversing through art on how we might ‘conceive new ways to live and work together’.
Coming across a group of elderly people actively engaging with a wonderful painting in one of the galleries at the NGV Australia recently was for me, a heart-warming experience.
It was all about art being a conduit for them to share their experiences about life and reminded me instantly of a quote attributed to the iconic artist Pablo Picasso… “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
It was very different and quite defining experience. Instead of the volunteer guide Dodi Rose talking about the painting they were viewing, she was encouraging each person in the group to share the memories provoked by the image itself.
The results she was achieving were nothing short of amazing. Just the animated look on all their faces was a joy to behold.
This group of seniors, each of whom I found out later were suffering from varying degrees of memory loss, were talking articulately with great feeling and passion about a painting by Australian artist Rupert Bunny (1864-1947) who had lived in Europe from 1884-1933).
It had been painted in Paris in the Summer of 1910, a halcyon days period prior to World War I.
They were excited and entirely captivated by the scene unfolding before their eyes, talking excitedly about remembering their mothers, aunts and uncles wearing clothes just like that and enjoying and sharing many wonderful moments at the beach, which was the perfect Australian place for a popular family outing.
Known as ‘The Art & Memory” program it is all about helping to raise the ‘quality of life through mental stimulation, communication and social engagement’.
It is all about the art of creative ageing: the joy of seeing the spark rekindled in the eyes of people living with dementia.
It’s an initiative NGV Volunteer guide Dodi Rose is completely passionate about and she shared her feelings about it later to me in a meeting.
“The NGV is indeed fortunate to have a team of dedicated voluntary guides who have made a great contribution engaging the participants with NGV Collection” said Dodi, “through the art of memory, participants are able to reconnect to a sense of community, regaining their self-esteem and sense of self”.
First developed into a formal training program at the National Gallery of Australia. Dodi Rose was trained by Adrain Boag their Access Coordinator and this training was further enhanced by training from Alzheimer’s Australia, Victoria. The program was introduced into the Education department at the NGV.
This highly specialised ‘access’ tour when it first became operational then started with a simple formulated structure.
As Dodie and the guides began exploring and collaborating on how it would work best in a practical sense at the NGV, they expanded and tweaked how it would work through interaction with various test groups who volunteered their help.
Over the past year by working closely with many of the curators and administrative staff at the gallery, as well as these very willing participants, Dodi says she has not only been humbled, but has learned heaps from the moving, and always inspirational, one on one encounters she has shared with both the art and the people.
This has enabled the team to not only help refine the program but also to tweak the program into an expanded format she believes will service the needs of an ageing community well. It can then basically be a program that is implemented in galleries locally, nationally and internationally.
A special NGV Access evening held when the stunning winter masterpiece 2013 exhibition Monet’s Garden was on has meant the NGV has been awarded a Leadership Award.
Auslan Description, All-Abilities and Art & Memory tours were offered to individuals, cares, and their families throughout the evening. Visitors who preferred a self- guided tour could download an OpenMi tour to their smartphone or device, and select from Auslan, caption or audio described options.
The NGV Shop and Gallery Kitchen were also open, providing opportunity for participants to enjoy hospitality and access to exhibition merchandise.
It was a terrific team effort and all credit to Jill Wylie, Jessemyn Schippers, the Voluntary Guides, Education and Curatorial, Exhibition Management, Marketing, Communications, Multimedia, Carolyn Long and Front of House team.
Dodi Rose and I talked together about the amazing journey she has taken along with one particular test group, the one that I encountered.
They were from the Emmy Monash Aged Care Home and came with their life-style coordinataor Juanita Bekinschtein.
Dodi said the responses she revealed each time she talked to them on a fortnightly basis, was nothing short of amazing, enriching and emboldening. She knows that they have all grown in varied ways over the time they have spent together, as indeed she has.
It has been a privilege she said.
Quality of life is a state of being, if we are being honest, that we all really want for our families, our friends and for our own sake.
For some however, it is more than a daily struggle to attain the ideals we set for ourselves.
Many people live their whole lives with a level of disability or disadvantage and find themselves unable to pursue the lives they really would like to have, including regular visits to their own cities art gallery.
This is often due to mitigating circumstances, including unforseen accidents, advancing years and serious illnesses, which can result in new degrees of difficulty.
The NGV have many ‘access’ programs to assist so that no one feels discriminated against when they visit the gallery.
So if you are working with people with special needs it is important to contact the gallery by telephone and discuss with their especially trained team just how they can help make the visit as enjoyable as possible.
The sheer beauty and quality of the visual art nourishes their senses, lifting both their mood and spirits.
Most of all what I noticed was how you wonderful for them all it was; they were feeling valued, included, reclaiming their important role in being an integral part of the social fabric and cultural community of Melbourne.
Dodi says “One of the positive benefits of the NGV Art & Memory program has been the shift in the public’s perception of people living with dementia, as they listen to (as you did) the discussion of the artworks.
When they engage with the artwork, be it a painting or a sculpture; they are seen laughing, having fun, with a great sense of humour and it changes the social perception of people living with dementia”
Nothing is more difficult perhaps for mature people than losing their ability to remember once poignant personal experiences in their lives that have impacted on their well-being and shaped the lives they lived with their families and friends.
To stimulate that by using scenes from wonderful periods of art from the past that may help them, is indeed inspired.
It’s very hard on children of any age when they discover their parent has some form of dementia and soul destroying to watch them slowly and painfully deteriorate.
Here’s a program that not only helps them to keep their brain active as long as at all possible, but also helps them to give back to the society they have helped to grow through sharing their ‘art of memory’.
In 2014 the NGV is seeking to raise the profile of this very important community activity, based on its success so far.
It’s a perfect example of how, by studying all forms of art we can feel elated or uplifted or, just as easily respond in a negative way. How we respond depends on our knowledge or, how our imagination is stimulated visually.
The NGV Art & Memory program is an important initiative benefiting an ageing population, one that can be implemented locally and internationally by creating a ripple effect.
Dodi Rose said “I feel a great sense of gratitude to our Director Tony Ellwood, for his great vision. He is transforming the culture of Melbourne with the idea of Community, Engagement and Play: the importance of having fun. As you were able to observe, the group was having fun. Which is one aspect I place great importance on, the enjoyment”
If you are part of an retirement community, or indeed a professional working in the aged care industry, this is a project you do really need to know about. It is empowering the participants to engage, feel a part of the community giving them a greater sense of dignity and self esteem.
As French artist Edgar Degas (1834-1917) reminded us all “… art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014
Enquiries: 03 8662 1555 (7 days, 10am-5pm)
With special thanks to Dodi Rose and Jill Wylie.