Participants in the Art Gallery of NSW art access program, with Mary Webb’s Joie de vivre 1958 © Estate of Mary Webb
AGNSW Art and Dementia Program

Art Gallery of NSW
Art and Dementia Program

Looking at paintings brings pleasure for people living with dementia

A newly published study of the Art Gallery of New South Wales's art access program for people living with dementia highlights the pleasurable experience that looking at art brings for people with dementia as well as their carers, family members and health care professionals.

The study, Arts engagement for people with dementia by Dr Gail Kenning PhD, University of Technology, Sydney, was commissioned by the Gallery in 2015. Alzheimer's Australia NSW supports the UTS findings as they provide a valuable evidence-base for the outcomes of such programming.

Dr Kenning said the study involved both qualitative and quantitative research to gain an understanding of the impact of the arts access program for people living with dementia.

"While dementia impacts cognitive and physical functioning and memory, consciousness and emotions remain intact. This means people living with dementia show affective responses and can experience the pleasure of looking at and talking about art," Dr Kenning said.

"This study did not focus on memory, and whether people living with dementia remembered their engagement with art, but recognised the positive impact of 'in the moment' pleasure of experiencing art and of feeling valued, supported, acknowledged, and challenged. This experience of pleasure impacted people with dementia as well as carers and family members," Dr Kenning added.

Artworks selected for the study by Danielle Gullotta, AGNSW access program coordinator, include iconic Australian masterpieces, works from international touring exhibitions, award-winning works from annual exhibitions such as the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes and AGNSW collection 'audience favourites' such as Elioth Gruner's Spring frost (1919).

Gullotta said it is a privilege to spend time viewing and discussing art with people who are living with dementia.

"Participants have an opportunity for meaningful and interactive engagement with art and are invited to imagine and think creatively in a safe environment.

"Guides encourage self-expression where participants' curiosity is stimulated through focused observation, group discussion and personal connections," Gullotta said.

The Art Gallery of NSW head of learning and participation, Heather Whitely, said the Gallery places great importance on the work it undertakes to contribute to the health and wellbeing of people living with specific needs.

"The transformative nature of art engagement for people with specific needs cannot be underestimated," Whitely said.

Recent research has indicated that social isolation and loneliness are the most significant issues people face once diagnosed with dementia. Dementia Awareness Month raises awareness about the support and services available for people living with dementia.

Alzheimer's Australia NSW CEO, the Honourable John Watkins AM, said the Art Gallery of New South Wales's arts access programming is a wonderful example of a social support available to people living with dementia and their carers.

"The theme of Dementia Awareness Month is 'You are not alone' and the Gallery's art and dementia programming certainly underlines this message," the Hon Watkins said.

"Art access programs at the Art Gallery of NSW are world-class, providing a pleasurable – and often joyful – experience for people with dementia and their carers and families.

"AGNSW art access programming provides a much-needed respite from the day-to-day realities of living with dementia and caring for someone who has dementia – with obvious ongoing benefits for everyone taking part," the Hon Watkins added.

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IMAGE: Participants in the Art Gallery of NSW art access program, with Mary Webb's Joie de vivre 1958 © Estate of Mary Webb