Mindfulness, the practice of bringing our attention purposefully to the present moment, is taught widely in healthcare treatment as a tool to aid in stress relief and coping.
I recently spoke with Ashley Mask, Manager of Visitor Experience and Access Programs at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York about Mindful Connections, a guided monthly 90-minute art tour of the museum for persons with dementia and their caregivers.
Supported by a robust advocacy community seeking to foster the relationship between the arts and well-being, the Rubin Museum, in collaboration with the Alzheimer’s Association and Arts & Minds, designed a program that would give participants an opportunity engage with the sensory experience of art in a group setting.
Access programs at the Rubin include American Sign Language tours, touch tours for blind or partially sighted visitors, and Mindful Connections, a recent addition. Mask shared that this expansion is informed by her own personal experience, “My grandfather had Alzheimer’s, and now my grandmother is dealing with the disease. I’ve seen firsthand the isolation that was starting to happen in my family even as my mother was caring for them with the support of professional caregivers.”
To attend the program, families complete a questionnaire that enables the staff to tailor the tour to specific needs of the group members each month. “We want to learn about the narrative of each person. What is the story of them coming to the museum? What are their physical needs? What special interests do they have? If we know something about their life story, we can bring that up in the tour. It’s amazing how those memories can come out in the conversations,” said Mask.
Guides for the tours are staff members and volunteers who undergo training sessions with the Alzheimer’s Association. Training includes learning about the disease and its symptoms and processing what it means to look at art as a shared experience. The sensitivity the guides bring creates safety for the participants, notes Mask, “It gives them permission to say what they are thinking, and that they will get a response that is supportive. I think it helps them to feel more relaxed.” The tours are further adapted based on physical and cognitive abilities, in addition to emphasis on touch if a member is nonverbal.
The feedback is positive regarding the tour as well as the soothing character of the art space, says Mask. “I heard from a caregiver this week about her mother’s experience--that she could not recount the specific pieces she saw at the museum, but the visit energized her mood. I think museum spaces are ideal in providing stimulation and calm at the same time.”
The Rubin Museum, specializing in Himalayan art, displays over 1000 works in its permanent collection, including textiles, sculpture, painting, and works tied to sacred traditions. In addition, it hosts traveling exhibitions. Mask asserts that even if one has not gone to a museum before or is not familiar with the traditions of Tibet, the Rubin sensibility is to offer a human connection to the art. “Our visitors range from people who do not know where the Himalayas are to Buddhist practitioners. You can come for the art, the meditative space, or dialogue,” she said.
We also spoke about how museums could be a bit intimidating. Mask, who is also an artist, commented, “I feel that there is a connection to art for anyone that wants it. I think it’s about re-accessing that part of yourself. We want the space to be a safe refuge that people can come to.”
Learning about Mindful Connections at the Rubin led me to think further about the importance of public spaces and Thoreau’s idea that affecting the quality of one’s day is the highest of the arts. For this aim, Mindful Connections at the Rubin achieves this by intertwining the art experience with needed moments of ease and renewal
To learn more about this program, contact the Rubin through its Access page. Advance registration is required to participate.