Blogs Field Guide Jia-Li Tan

Feelin’ The Love: Not Your Everyday Evaluations

It’s no secret that the tours we provide at the Walker are world-class, not only enchanting our visitors with bountiful knowledge about modern art, but also giving them a chance to giggle at the *amount of people that make out on the Spoonbridge & Cherry. Thing is, when all you have to go on is […]

It’s no secret that the tours we provide at the Walker are world-class, not only enchanting our visitors with bountiful knowledge about modern art, but also giving them a chance to giggle at the *amount of people that make out on the Spoonbridge & Cherry.

Thing is, when all you have to go on is hearsay, you don’t get the best picture of precisely how excellent our tour guides are at what they do. So I did some snooping around upon my supervisor’s suggestion, and guess what I found?

As it turns out, we have several giant ring binders of tour evaluations and letters that tell us what a great job our guides have done. Talk about a morale boost! It was a difficult process in which many tears were shed, but I eventually picked out the tokens of appreciation that really went an extra step to show us how they felt. From hand-made cards to explosively happy notes, I present to you the creme-de-la-creme.

 

 

 

Did I also mention that we won ourselves an award…

…as well as a gigantic banner that uses one of the best fonts I’ve ever seen?

It elates us to know we’ve made our visitors happy, especially when they make their feelings clear through such creative and striking ways. So the next time you think of turning in a tour evaluation, feel free to whip out the crayons and witty exclamations! After all, the pieces on display in our galleries aren’t the only kinds of art we cherish.

 

* Don’t worry – it’s all fine as long as you don’t scuff anything.

Color Coded: Creativity Through Restraint

Ribbons, balloons, little plastic figurines. An excited and very sweaty horde of people fiddling with duct tape in the shade. Despite appearances, this wasn’t your typical arts and crafts session. Color Coded, an Open Field activity planned and run by our beloved Art Lab coordinator, Ilene Krug Mojsilov, was the talk of the afternoon on […]

Ribbons, balloons, little plastic figurines. An excited and very sweaty horde of people fiddling with duct tape in the shade. Despite appearances, this wasn’t your typical arts and crafts session. Color Coded, an Open Field activity planned and run by our beloved Art Lab coordinator, Ilene Krug Mojsilov, was the talk of the afternoon on the 11th of August, 2011.

What do people usually tell you when they try to get your creativity percolating? “There are no limits. Do whatever you want. Be free.” And there’s no question that throwing caution to the wind helps immensely, but Ilene knows that artistic innovation can bloom just as easily from working with a tight set of rules. Armed with thirteen boxes of knickknacks, she flouted the preferred route of high school art teachers everywhere and set down these conditions:

Make a piece using 8 to 10 objects. And most importantly…

Use only one color.

You’d think that oppressive heat coupled with an equally oppressive criteria would smother their enthusiasm, but everyone jumped in with aplomb. During each of my seven iced-tea breaks, I walked around and saw not only some lovely works of art, but also heaps of jubilant grinning. My curiosity compelled me to ask this motley crew of professional artists and little children about how they felt.

And here’s the scoop: even though people generally preferred working with many different colors, they loved the challenge of having to stick to one. One of our guests, Emma Rotilie, even lauded the benefits of trying artistic methods that you don’t like. At first it’s pure agony, but you can really discover abilities that have been lying latent all along. And who knows? You might even grow to like what you’re doing in the end. Just goes to show that working in monochrome doesn’t have to be cruel and unusual punishment.

As the resident watchdog (complete with shaggy hair and a love for red meat), I’ve got to tell you: not everyone followed the rules all the time. That’s okay though – after all, who can resist a bit of pink?

The Invasion of the Girl Scouts

No casualties reported, and the Art Lab remains intact. The activity of the hour was to design your very own miniature sculpture garden, and this particular troupe of Girl Scouts were only too happy to jump in. At the end of the session, Ilene and I found ourselves gazing at some wonderful pieces of work. […]

No casualties reported, and the Art Lab remains intact. The activity of the hour was to design your very own miniature sculpture garden, and this particular troupe of Girl Scouts were only too happy to jump in. At the end of the session, Ilene and I found ourselves gazing at some wonderful pieces of work. Check out the brainspawn of these budding artists – it’s enough to make this art major feel insecure.

 

Field Office: The Alzheimer’s Advocacy Session

When the Alzheimer’s Advocacy Field Office was mentioned to me, I wasn’t expecting to start it off with some gardening. And yet there I was on the patio of the FlatPak house on the 24th of June, shoving small cacti into pots as my hands steadily turned into Swiss cheeses. Well you know what? An […]

When the Alzheimer’s Advocacy Field Office was mentioned to me, I wasn’t expecting to start it off with some gardening. And yet there I was on the patio of the FlatPak house on the 24th of June, shoving small cacti into pots as my hands steadily turned into Swiss cheeses. Well you know what? An up-close encounter with some of the strongest plants alive may have been a pretty fitting prelude to the session of the day.

Just to clue you in on what Field Office is, a brief explanation: it’s a weekly opportunity for the Education and Community Programs staff to explore their interests together with the public and, 1 more importantly, to escape the freezing, fluorescent-lit confines of our cubicles. No one-way lectures, don’t worry. It’s all about connecting, sharing and learning in a relaxed environment – the FlatPak in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

This time, the ECP staff were happy to take a step back and have the members of the Early Stage Advisory group take over. Jim Engel, Ken Lehmann, Mike Tracy, Earl Reiland, Lucy Rice, Mary Margaret Lehmann, Jerilynn Hanson, Julie Allen and Dick Wagner were our esteemed guests, present to host a session on living with early-stage dementia. Also attending were Michelle Barclay, Vice President of Programs at the 2 Alzheimer’s Association, Carolyn Klaver of the Gathering with Lyngblomsten and Sara Tucker, an art therapist who spearheaded the Art Institute of Chicago’s program for memory loss and now works with Michelle at the Alzheimer’s Assocation.

Once everyone had settled themselves in, Sara broke the lull with a quote from Jim Engel, one of the members.

“ You have to understand. Life doesn’t stop at diagnosis. This group is a testament to how you can live with the disease. It’s the time of my life. I enjoy it.”

Jim’s words were strikingly spirited, summing up what seemed to be the motto of the group. These people are no shrinking violets. In addition to raising public awareness about Alzheimer’s and the lives of those affected by it, this intrepid team of heroes provides information and emotional support to the newly-diagnosed, most of whom have poor access to educational resources. They also attend conferences, participate in rallies, and serve as 3 mentors to those who need guidance in dealing with early-stage Alzheimer’s. The underlying idea? To empower through education and solidarity.

Phone calls may be one of the more unassuming ways to help, but never underestimate how much a well-timed one can do. More often than not, the Early-Stage Advisory group’s helpline becomes something of a lifeline as well. The terror of dealing with a disease swells tenfold when you are not only left to find your way in the dark, but are forced to do so alone. Earl understands this perfectly.

“ I start out by talking about myself a little, which gives us an opportunity to connect.” He said, describing how he prefers to open his phone conversations. “ Listen to them, because they really need a chance to talk to you and tell you how they feel. At the end of the day, that can be more important than what we have to say.”

Despite the prevalence of Alzheimer’s, misconceptions regarding its causes, symptoms and development run abound. The sad reality is that these mistaken assumptions often breed behavior that marginalizes despite its best intentions. Keeping this in mind, Sara asked the group:“ When coming into contact with the public, what would be something you’d want to say or ask? What would be the one thing you’d want them to take away from the encounter?”

“ We’re person-first. A person with Alzheimer’s. Not an ‘Alzheimer-ish’ person. Honor each one of us as an individual while remembering our challenges.” replied Mary in a sobering reminder that they are more than the disease. Remaining on that note, Ken mentioned that one of the risks of coming forward about one’s condition was facing the prospect of being reduced to a label.

The trouble is, keeping the disease a secret is like trying to hold a stream of water back with your bare hands. As Mike later explained: no matter what you do, the onset of the disease will begin redefining and restricting a lot of your daily activities. It will reveal itself in the long run even if you choose to not talk about it.

But hey, this inevitability doesn’t have to entail life without a little bit of zest. Once after attending Mass, Mike walked into a room full of crying friends who had just found out about his situation. To the horror of everyone present, he drooled.

Okay, so the drooling turned out to be a joke, much to the relief of his teary-eyed friends. But behind its playfulness lay a profound principle, one to which Mike holds with unfailing determination until this very day. “ Humor got me through this,” he said with eyes full of moxie. “ If I don’t laugh several times a day, something’s wrong.”

A solid sense of humor is one of the best ways to get through tough times, but there’s another great means to make one’s struggle a smoother ride. “ You know, the stigma’s going to be around for awhile. So let’s own it and redefine it.” Michelle suggested, referring to harmful preconceived notions about people with Alzheimer’s. “ When people are insensitive in interactions, take it as a chance to re-educate through counter-suggestions.”

It’s no picnic to grin and bear tactless remarks, no matter how well-meaning they are. But the group found that being patient and flexible with the way they express their needs helps more than aggressively trying to dictate how people should behave. As Jerrilyn astutely pointed out:“ We can’t control what people say to us and what they find meaningful, but we can change how we contribute to the conversation.”

There were quiet nods of agreement, and then the discussion shifted to the issue of early diagnosis. Within a few minutes, everyone had reached a consensus: it’s wiser to deal with a difficult truth as soon as possible than unknowingly fumble through the years.

“ It may feel better at first to dwell in ignorance, but later on, you might make a lot of choices that aren’t based in reality and end up being quite harmful in the long run,” warned Michelle. “ We see people just living from one crisis to another with no informed plans, husbands and wives treating each other poorly due to a lack of understanding.”

I looked at the faces around me, struck by how different the group members were from what Michelle had just described. Even though each day brings new struggles with a formidable neurological disease, these people don’t stumble around in a daze while waiting for life to get better. In them resides an unshakeable fortitude that springs not only from their love for life, but also their indomitable will to tackle every setback with wisdom and candor. In short, the word we’re looking for here is ‘bad-ass’.

After the discussion closed, some of us adjourned to a shady spot right outside the FlatPak house for a commemorative group photo. While getting the camera ready, strains of suspicious laughter trickled through the air.

And sure enough – the minute I counted to three, the members of the advisory group suddenly sprang forward with their arms outstretched. As I snapped the shot, Jim’s words echoed faintly in my ears. It’s truer than we think, that lives don’t have to end at diagnosis. In a lot of ways, theirs are just beginning.

 

1 Just kidding. Really.

2 Besides a website, they also have a twitter feed.

3 Getting a mentor is quite straightforward: just call their 24/7 helpline at 1.800.272.3900. Someone will pass you a recommendation and, with your approval, give you a date and time for meetings.

The State of Things: Part Two

Following Leslye Orr’s lively keynote address, we had a panel in which the representatives of four major cultural and educational institutions talked about accessibility-related efforts and issues. The panelists of the day were Courtney Gerber of the Walker, Hunter Gullickson of the Guthrie Theater, Debbi Hegstrom of the MIA, Deb Helmke of Interact and Kit […]

Following Leslye Orr’s lively keynote address, we had a panel in which the representatives of four major cultural and educational institutions talked about accessibility-related efforts and issues. The panelists of the day were Courtney Gerber of the Walker, Hunter Gullickson of the Guthrie Theater, Debbi Hegstrom of the MIA, Deb Helmke of Interact and Kit Wilhite of the Science Museum of Minnesota. Euan Kerr of Minnesota Public Radio served as the moderator.

The discussion was well-rounded, stimulating and regrettably punctuated by the sounds of my frantic typing. Hunter kicked it off by explaining that it’s the responsibility of the institution to make itself more financially and physically accessible. The issue of physical accessibility in particular warrants more attention, since it tends to get over-simplified. It’s not just about cramming the architectural blueprints with ramps and elevators. As Courtney mentioned, every detail of a physical space plays a big role in building a welcoming environment.

On the subject of over-simplification, one must remember that the issue of accessibility encompasses more than just ability, socioeconomic status and cultural background. Kit gave a very demonstrative example about interacting with children with disabilities. Understanding the needs and behaviors of a younger demographic won’t be a walk in the park, so talk to their parents. Maintain an open exchange of information with them and work together as much as possible.

So far the panel had touched on challenges in both interpersonal and institutional spheres, but how about the internal conflicts that get in the way of fighting the good fight? Even after years of experience, thinking of ways to help a group who faces different challenges can be still daunting. Kit described a conundrum familiar to so many of us: you want to take risks, to push the envelope and bring a fresh spark to current endeavors. At the same time, however, there is the fear of over-stepping boundaries and the resulting desire to be a more passive listener. As hard as it may initially be, it’s important to make sure the dilemma doesn’t paralyze you. It’s no less crucial to keep a flexible mindset that is open to innovation and creativity; in the words of Euan, what works for one group might not work for the other. To make sure efforts don’t stagnate, engage with other organizations to exchange findings and program development ideas.

By the end of the panel, my fingers were starting to feel like they’d been trampled on by several large men. But the audience was almost bursting with questions, so I shelved all wistful thoughts of ice packs and Bloody Marys for another round of note-taking. Here are the results!

 

Q & A:

 

Q: Hunter, could you talk to us about user experiences of the open-captioning system at the Guthrie?

Hunter: The open-captioning system is basically live text that scrolls in tandem with the show. We have a live operator who gets the script in advance, as well as an LED screen. A lot of usage comes from people who are deaf/hard of hearing as well as people with English as a second language. It works particularly well with Shakespeare shows or ones featuring people with more difficult accents. The reactions so far have been wonderful! Results of randomly-conducted surveys show that 90% of the audience has used it at some point during the show.

 

Q: How often do institutions consider the accessibility of their entrance areas? Prior to attending a show at the Opera Center, a friend of mine found that getting from the ramp to the theater was surprisingly difficult. It’s an especially important issue since we often face the prospect of bad weather conditions.

Debbi: Taking this matter into consideration, we’ve built accessible parking spaces right in front of the MIA building. It’s always a bit of a struggle when changing the landscape is involved – the accessibility team was flabbergasted by how much it took just to create those spots.

Courtney: It all comes down to the initial conversation. There will be physical challenges present in each institution’s structure, but if we provide visitors with disabilities and their caregivers enough information in advance and have a member of the staff present to greet and help, it can really make a huge difference.

 

Q: In terms of internal advocacy, are you thinking of aligning your efforts with organizations that offer programs for seniors? How does that demographic figure in your long-term plan?

Courtney: To the first question: yes, definitely. Considering this issue was a big part of what spurred us to collaborate with the Alzheimer’s Association and begin the Contemporary Journeys program. Through said program we’ve developed a lot of good relations with senior citizens and day activity centers all over the Twin Cities.

Debbi: We have a program called Discover Your Story for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers – it’s offer to day-care centers, but walk-in public tours are available as well. We’re working on providing assisted listening devices for our tours.

Leslye: When keeping senior citizens in mind, don’t neglect issues of visibility. At the Dreamland Arts theater, signs were provided, but people kept tripping all the same because they were shifted from an extremely bright place to an extremely dark one. Having guides present is extremely helpful.

Courtney: With regards to physical comfort, there are amazing gallery stools that can be purchased.

For visitors who are a little less stable on their feet, we obtained folding chairs that are light, comfortable and easy to place in galleries.

Deb: It’s also very useful to have a network of people that one can ask for information regarding a place’s degree of accessibility.

 

Q: I work with a center dealing with adults with mental disabilities. We’ve had some collaborations and partnerships with numerous organizations, including the Walker. It has produced great results for us, but we were wondering what we could do for cultural organizations as people who work directly with people with disabilities. How can we contribute to your accessibility-related efforts?

Debbi: When in a partnership with us, feel free to tell us when you spot an event that might fit well with our agenda. Also, let us know what you want to see in our institutions. Think of it as a good opportunity to expand awareness.

Leslye: Give us as many details about your population so that everything can be worked out in advance and expectations can be met on everyone’s part. Then nobody will feel like they’ve crossed boundaries or that they’ve overestimated their clients.

Courtney: Be open – feel free to give us honest feedback on what we’re doing right and what we’re not. Also, if you think an organization is less skilled in a particular area and you know another organization that can offer corresponding guidance, please let us know.

 

Q: Does anyone have specific advice for an organization seeking to train staff in inclusiveness-related efforts? Should we get consultants to get a good handle of what works?

Hunter: Yeah definitely. Staff have responded very well, particularly to consultants that talk about personal experience. Firsthand conversations go a very long way. There are a number of resources available out there regarding set up and training and protocol. However, direct conversations are very effective.

Leslye: In the case of people with English as a second language, I would encourage going online to look at their first language and learn the corresponding ways of respectfully addressing them.

Kit: We partner with teachers in the state, trying to make training as interactive as possible. We also have small discussion groups to introduce an element of peer-coaching and make things less lecture-based. Getting first-person accounts are essential in making the training a richer experience.

Debbi: The MIA has consulting sessions for its docents. The organization Vision Loss Resources sends us people who provide very hands-on consultation. They even have types of glasses that simulate different degrees of vision loss! As for ASL-interpreted tour training, we invite interpreters as well as people who are deaf. The one-on-one experience is important – fears just melt away when there is direct interaction.

Deb: At the Interact Center, there’s no formal training. To us, the best thing is to sit down and get used to artist with disabilities. You’ll find that it’s not so different from working with everybody else – it really boils down to a matter of mutual respect. If you want to know how you can help, just ask the person in question him or herself.

The State of Things: Part One

“ If life gives you lemons, just take the damned lemons.” Not the classiest way to kick off a blog post, but I wanted to give you a little taste of the gung-ho attitude that blew minds at the Walker not too long ago. On the 13th of May, the Walker Art Center hosted The […]

“ If life gives you lemons, just take the damned lemons.” Not the classiest way to kick off a blog post, but I wanted to give you a little taste of the gung-ho attitude that blew minds at the Walker not too long ago.

On the 13th of May, the Walker Art Center hosted The State of Things: An Update on Accessible Cultural Programming in the Twin Cities as part of a larger endeavor to increase awareness around the growing accessibility of cultural activities in the cities. And I’m not kidding when I say ‘larger’. Present at our event were over 60 people who were either representing different educational and cultural organizations or attending as individuals invested in the access community. The central idea was ‘radical inclusion:’ giving equal consideration to different ways of experiencing the world. Following the keynote address, we had a panel discussion followed by a Q&A session, both of which I’ll cover in a separate blog post so that this one doesn’t turn into a skyscraper of text.

As we all know, no self-respecting event dares to launch itself without an amazing keynote address. Enter Leslye Orr, a woman who not only took those lemons and made lemonade, but also helped children all over the country do the same.

In her brief introduction, Courtney Gerber of the Walker Education and Community Programs Department delivered a salient quote: “ Disability is a mainstream aspect of being human. It’s not special or other – it simply is.” The words belong to Nina Levent, who works with the Art Beyond Sight program in New York City. They struck a resonant chord not only due to their insight, but also because of how unnervingly well they applied to the keynote speaker of the day. As she stepped up to the podium and faced the audience with a friendly smile, Leslye seemed filled with confidence and a radiant joie de vivre. Very far from the stereotypical portrait of disability.

“ You never know about disabilities,” observed Leslye, whose slender frame houses an immense capability for greatness. On top of being a seasoned playwright, she’s also a performer, an author and a theater workshop instructor for voice, improvisation and acting. She also owns and runs private theater company Dreamland Arts with her husband, Zarawaar Mistry. Impressed? Wait until you hear that Leslye is legally blind – she was born with tunnel vision. Yet her disability, like that of many others, isn’t always immediately perceptible to others. As Leslye cautioned, it’s important to remember that a person’s disability may not necessarily manifest in the most obvious of ways. To avoid being equated to the disability, an individual sometimes manages to rearrange his or her lifestyle in a way that hides it rather well.

At this point, I was a little tempted to consider the afore-mentioned process as a heartbreaking form of compensation. Leslye caught the thought before it took off and firmly popped it with a pin. “ Why can’t what we’re missing also be something we enjoy? There’s so much pity for the disabled. Don’t assume they’re miserable,” she pointed out in her address as I struggled to curb my blush. “ These people have their own delightful experiences that are specific to their condition. It’s their world. They’re fine with it.”

A very striking point. With all acts of charity, the line between sensitive, sincere concern and dehumanizing condescension can wax thin. When we think about people with disabilities, there’s always the tendency to focus on only the tragic and caricaturize a living individual. It’s a common mistake that rears its ugly head in many circumstances.

During two separate activities Leslye asked children to describe an alien of their own design and write essays about their friends with disabilities. In both, the children focused on the differences between them and the subject of their descriptions. In the case of the aliens, they were extolled with affectionate curiosity and wonder. But when it came to the friends with disabilities, pity and sadness permeated the narrative. Leslye asked the children to consider a healthier possibility: why not talk about your friends in the same positive way as you did about your aliens? “ We are proud of ourselves”, said Leslye in her address, her voice quiet but resolute. “We like who we are.”

In addition to coping with her own challenges, Leslye has had an extensive history of helping others who encounter physiological and mental disabilities on a daily basis. As a child, she took care of three brothers with disabilities, two of whom passed away at an early age. The experience was painful and difficult. Nevertheless, it taught her how to interact with people with disabilities and endowed her with a strong, vivid imagination: two skill sets that would later help her use performance art to bring joy and empowerment to children with disabilities.

From helping said children stage stuffed animal puppet shows to conducting disability workshops in high schools in numerous states, Leslye has poured her altruism and ingenuity into a dizzying array of philanthropic activities. She has also written and illustrated a book called The People on the Corner that introduces ideas of disability and diversity to a younger audience.

In describing the contents of the book, Leslye asked the audience: “ If you aren’t exposed to different kinds of people when you’re young, how can you grow up accepting them?” It was a haunting question that really highlighted the importance of holistic early cognitive development in the fostering of a more tolerant society.

But learning is never just a one-way street – in this world, everyone is both a teacher and a student. “ It’s important to keep mainstreaming and mixing different ways for people to keep communicating their ideas,” Leslye noted, underlining the fact that all individuals have the potential to contribute something valuable to the discourse on art and accessibility.

It was a lot to digest in one go, and I had a feeling that most of our guests weren’t used to fully re-examining their perceptions of people with disabilities at ten in the morning. Thankfully, Leslye was completely aware of this. She moved on to the realm of more logistical concerns, suggesting practical ways of making an institution a more welcoming place. Don’t underestimate the importance of good signage: try to make ones that can be easily removed from walls and perused up close. Make sure that transportation options are highly accessible. And last but definitely not least, remember that people choose to visit museums when they can relate and engage with what’s on display. Without this crucial process, the connection is lost and then so is the interest.

In the wake of such a compelling and thought-provoking keynote address, there were plenty of ideas and questions to share. Stay tuned for Part Two, in which I share the details of the enlightening panel discussion and Q&A session which followed! If you’re interested in watching Leslye’s keynote address instead of just reading about it, here’s the video.

 

Picture This: The ArtsConnectEd Workshop

If you had walked into the Walker Art Lab on the morning of the 11th of July, you would have been greeted by the sight of numerous ladies huddled over their laptops. No, they were not journalists. Neither were they extremely fashionable computer game beta-testers. They were, in fact, participants of the exciting two-day ArtsConnectEd […]

If you had walked into the Walker Art Lab on the morning of the 11th of July, you would have been greeted by the sight of numerous ladies huddled over their laptops. No, they were not journalists. Neither were they extremely fashionable computer game beta-testers. They were, in fact, participants of the exciting two-day ArtsConnectEd workshop, conducted by Susan Rotilie, Program Manager for School Programs at the Walker Art Center, and Christine McKigney, Coordinator of School Outreach Programs at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

So the word “ArtsConnectEd” might not be familiar to some of you. To give you a good hint, here’s a question: what do you get when you mix a sleek presentation builder, gigantic artwork database and education community website into one?

ArtsConnectEd is the answer. Made nine years ago as a joint effort between the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Art , it’s a handy, user-friendly web tool designed to help educators build their very own curriculum using the artwork of the two institutions. And we’re not talking about two dozen photos of paintings here. There are thousands of pieces available for your perusal – from sculptures to sound clips, from bite-sized videos to event descriptions. You don’t even have to register to browse. Simply click on ‘Art Finder’ and go wild. If the prospect of leafing through 21062 pages of artsy goodness threatens to overwhelm, just enter some search terms into the ‘keyword’ search bar to narrow the scope of results, or pick and choose a trait from the cloud of tags on the homepage.

Want to make your own slideshow? Interested in playing curator for the day? Then simply click on ‘Art Collector’, register and jump right into making an ‘Art Collector Set’. Adding your chosen pieces to the set is only a matter of pointing and clicking. If you think you’ve made a particularly noteworthy set, click the ‘share’ button and send it to anyone you please!

Sounds pretty fantastic, no? Well, the workshop participants certainly thought so. After being given a short and sweet tour of the website’s infrastructure, they couldn’t wait for a chance to try ArtsConnectEd themselves. And what a chance they got. At the sound of Susan and Christine clapping their hands, the room fell silent and all eyes wandered to the new words on the projector screen. ‘ Scavenger Hunt’ . We give you an image from the ArtsConnectEd database with no additional information, you play detective and find its title and artist using any of the ArtsConnectEd resources. To the amazement of all Walker and MIA staff present, people were finding them in a minute or less and then traipsing to the front of the room to collect their prizes. Sigh. And we were so hoping to keep all that chocolate for ourselves.

Since everyone had become so well-acquainted with ArtsConnectEd in such a short space of time, we decided to let them explore the tool for themselves and build their own Art Collector’s Sets.  The results were varied and nothing short of fascinating. One set described the numerous manifestations of shoes in the world of art, while another explored the possibilities of art as inspiration for creative writing. Not too bad at all for only a day’s work!

But that’s not all that took place. To give them some ideas on how to effectively use ArtsConnectEd in their teaching, the workshops participants were taken on engaging Visual Thinking Strategies tours at the MIA and tours about elements of contemporary art at the Walker. Armed with comfortable walking shoes and a keen sense of humor, two docents from each museum cruised the galleries with our lovely teachers, showing them how to apply said strategies to different kinds of art.

‘Hang on a minute. What on earth are Visual Thinking Strategies?’ you ask. They are, in short, educational methods that develop critical thinking through the consideration, discussion and analysis of images.

It occurred to me that the introduction to this concept was a particularly thoughtful addition to the workshop schedule. After all, instead of just showing educators a handy and versatile webtool, why not also suggest some pertinent ways with which to use it in the classroom? Using VTS with the resources of ArtsConnectEd opens up a world of possibilities. Through the implementation of these strategies, ArtsConnectEd becomes more than a way to look at our art collections, taking on a directly auxiliary role in the development of an important cognitive process.

All in all, the participants were mixed – experience with art education and web applications varied enormously. However, it was easy to see that everyone was unified in their desire to find new and exciting ideas to bring to their classrooms. And despite some nigh-bellicose encounters with technological hiccups, they definitely succeeded.

If you would like to know more about ArtsConnectEd from Susan Rotilie herself, go check out Show and Tell: The New ArtsConnectEd !

Contemporary Journeys Workshop: Part Two

By the time we were halfway through the Contemporary Journeys workshop hosted on the 30th of June, tour guides and Walker staff had heard a brief history of the Walker’s Contemporary Journeys program. They’d heard a rundown on tour etiquette and heartwarming stories of Ilene’s Art Lab sessions. But the question remained: would we hear […]

By the time we were halfway through the Contemporary Journeys workshop hosted on the 30th of June, tour guides and Walker staff had heard a brief history of the Walker’s Contemporary Journeys program. They’d heard a rundown on tour etiquette and heartwarming stories of Ilene’s Art Lab sessions. But the question remained: would we hear the perspective of someone who centers her whole job on helping people with Alzheimer’s through art?

Luckily for us, the answer was a resounding ‘yes’. Sara Tucker, our third speaker, has spent numerous years of her life doing just that. As an art therapist who spearheaded the Art Institute of Chicago’s program for people with memory loss, she tirelessly strives to help people with Alzheimer’s cope with their condition through the viewing and creation of art.

Sara’s practice is nuanced and fascinating. Displaying a deep understanding of the Alzheimer’s disease, it’s an emotionally intuitive mix of memory priming through sensory stimulation as well as group art-making sessions. Oh how it pains me to make the former sound like a quote from one of my dreary psychology textbooks. The idea itself is anything but boring- it’s a simple but beautiful activity that does a great job of reaching out to its audience. So what is it exactly? Here’s an example that will hopefully tell you all you need to know. To help participants recall their memories, Sara shows them a photo of a woman accompanied by the sound of laughter, or a wall of ‘smells’ where one can sniff an array of labeled objects. Pinpoints of recollection spark to life and bloom into stories.

Something I found impressive about her therapeutic process was the strong emphasis on fostering group connections. Sadly, Alzheimer’s, like many other mental conditions, can severely alienate one from others and give rise to a debilitating feeling of irrelevance to society. Sara’s brand of group art-making sessions confronts that problem head on. A considerable number of her projects allowed participants to craft individual pieces, eventually combining them into one large, cohesive piece. As she said, “connecting with people is an incredible health benefit”. But that’s not all. Knowing that an increased sense of self-worth is one of the fundamental sources of happiness, Sara takes care to make participants feel like they’ve succeeded at what they’ve done. I couldn’t help but wish that some of my elementary school teachers had grasped that concept instead of, you know, my right ear.

A little later on, the talk moved on to the subject of choices. The prospect of too many, Sara pointed out, can be quite stressful. Therefore, it’s important to ask fewer open-ended questions and instead pose ones where the array of possible answers is more limited.  Also, acknowledging the opinions of people with Alzheimer’s and following their train of thought instead of bending them towards your own is just as vital. Patience and respect are key.

The workshop didn’t end with Sara’s presentation. We had five special Walker tour guides with us who had extensive experience giving tours to people with Alzheimer’s, and they weren’t going to close the session without putting their formidable arsenal of knowledge to work. Claudia Swager, Tina Daniels Rivkin, Kay Ehrhart, Jane Mercier, and Caroline Lappin headed an illuminating Q&A session with helpful input from previous speakers Courtney Gerber, Ilene Krug Mojsilov and Sara Tucker. I think we’ve all had it up to here with paragraphs, so I’m going to lay a summarized version out for everyone a little differently.

Q: What do you do when somebody gets really angry or upset, or when you sense a negative feeling rising? How do you deal with that?

A:  If you notice someone becoming upset, try to help them step away from the situation that is evoking this feeling. For instance, ask: “Do you want to take a walk and see this piece with me?”. Taking that walk might be just about all you have to do. Hear them out. Also, it’s useful to have an extra guide or two along to help observe reactions and assuage negative emotions.

Q: How should we address our Contemporary Journeys audience?

A: It depends on the person. In the cases of some people with early-stage Alzheimer’s, using the phrase ‘mild cognitive impairment’ may be preferable, but in general it is acceptable to address them as ‘people with Alzheimer’s’. Acknowledging them as people instead of patients is important, so always use person-first language.

Q: How should we choose pieces for the Contemporary Journeys tours?

A: Having a mix of work is a good idea, so if one direction doesn’t work out you have something else to which to resort. It’s also important to have your pieces within close proximity. If you are guiding people with mid-stage Alzheimer’s, consider using props in the tour and including more images that have a high visual contrast (for instance: black and white images) as less detail can be less stress-inducing.

And last but not least,

Q: How do you establish emotionally fulfilling relationships in a few visits?

A: Through asking questions and gaining valuable insight into who your audience is, through using props to bring the abstract down to the realm of the tangible and physically familiar. In short, through always trying to reach out.

When the questions had died down, Ilene sprang up and called everyone’s attention to the front of the room. “That’s right ladies,” said the twinkle in her eye. “It’s time to make some art.” The name of the game? Sell-Out, inspired by consumerism and Andy Warhol’s body of work. How do you play it? Design a can of anything you want. Unfortunately, it fell upon my shoulders to photograph the activity, so my life-long dream of making a can of bacon-flavored soda was dashed to pieces. But from the demise of an interesting albeit totally unmarketable idea, at least you get some nice photos of the great time we all had!

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To get a better idea of what happened earlier on in the workshop, check out Contemporary Journeys Workshop: Part One!

Contemporary Journeys Workshop: Part One

As you already know, efforts to heighten the Walker’s accessibility to the deaf or hard-of-hearing are already operating under full steam. But what about those who face a very different set of obstacles? How about those whose difficulties transcend the realm of the sensory, reaching far into that of the cognitive? Don’t worry – the […]

As you already know, efforts to heighten the Walker’s accessibility to the deaf or hard-of-hearing are already operating under full steam. But what about those who face a very different set of obstacles? How about those whose difficulties transcend the realm of the sensory, reaching far into that of the cognitive?

Don’t worry – the Walker is on it. It’s true that interacting with people with Alzheimer’s can present itself as an intimidating situation to many, even to those who are no strangers to the idea. The awareness that entering the complex reality of these individuals requires a different plane of sensitivity, coupled with the fear of doing something clumsy and hurtful, can nip the noblest of endeavors in the bud. Here at the Walker, we acknowledge this predicament, and understand that what helps to assuage these fears is some in-depth guidance from the experienced and savvy. So to show our tour guides how to work with people with Alzheimer’s or dementia, the Walker held the Contemporary Journeys workshop for tour guides and administrative staff alike on the 30th of June.

Courtney Gerber, the assistant director of Education and Community Programs, began the event by giving us a short history of the Walker’s Contemporary Journeys program, in which volunteers took people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s along with their care partners on tours and art lab sessions. Said volunteers were trained by the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Alzheimer’s Association and local memory care professionals, meeting with their groups regularly over a period of two months. Before someone in the audience exclaims ‘Two months?! Oh come on!’, let me assure you that something good did bloom from our efforts. Despite the time constraints, tour groups managed to form intimate bonds with their tour guides and fellow participants, ones which became fertile ground for enriching interactions and discussions.

Of course, anyone can tell you that careening excitedly down a path without knowing where it’s heading never ends well. With this in mind, the Walker hired Dr. Joseph Gaugler from the University of Minnesota to give the program a solid six-month evaluation on whether it was having positive effects on the wellbeing of the patrons with Alzheimer’s and their care partners while at the Walker and outside of its walls.

Meticulously illustrating the similarities and differences between conducting typical adult group tours and Contemporary Journey tours, Courtney clarified that the world of abstract and conceptual art isn’t necessarily off-limits. One can still render it intellectually accessible just by making one’s related questions less abstract and more concrete. In fact, it is considered disrespectful to omit art-related information based on the assumption that patrons with Alzheimer’s cannot digest it. “Depending on where they are on the spectrum of memory loss, they might want to hear about it from you,” said Courtney.

As for the art itself? Tour guides are encouraged to help patrons find its relevance to their own personal experiences. Definitely a point that struck a chord. After all, finding how and where a piece of art fits into one’s own life story can be one of the most powerful forms of appreciation.

But while it’s good to avoid over-thinking one’s etiquette when giving tours to people with Alzheimer’s, there is one major don’t to keep in mind. Priming, a commonly-employed conversational tool, is not such a good idea. For instance, asking questions like “Remember when I said this?” can cause considerable emotional stress for people with Alzheimer’s, as they might not be able to recall the information but feel pressured to do so anyway. It’s also crucial to remember that they may respond to the art in ways different from what one is used to. Sometimes a silent smile and nod will replace a verbal response. Sometimes opinions will be repeated. However, one shouldn’t brush these forms of input aside and instead integrate them into the course of the tour. “And remember to keep group sizes small,” Courtney reminded, as a greater feeling of intimacy is a wonderful catalyst for group interaction.

Leaping in to talk about the Art Lab was Ilene Mojsilov, the Art Lab Coordinator. One look at our taut, pale faces and she probably figured that we were a little overwhelmed by the myriad logistical concerns combined with subzero air-conditioning. To warm us over a little, she shared some truly inspiring anecdotes of her art lab experiences involving patrons with Alzheimer’s. Taking on the role as a guiding presence rather than a dictating one, Ilene tried to help participants with Alzheimer’s find their own preferences and artistic direction instead of instructing them every step of the way. If someone had difficulty using the materials, the staff was encouraged to take this setback as an opportunity to talk about aesthetic choices.

The results were incredible. In one art lab session, a patron who works with the St Paul Public Library took a fresh and exciting spin on a collage, introducing sculptural elements into her work. In another during which participants made their own ‘dime store box’, a participant transformed her piece into a beautiful exploration of color-layering. “The possibilities are endless,” the stories seemed to say. Ilene herself noted that the Art Lab session did wonders for building self-esteem by discovering or revisiting positive qualities in the patrons while helping them reconnect to other members of society.

Despite the rapid onset of frostbite, I was really moved by the underlying sentiment of Ilene’s observation. It’s true that when it comes to considering a condition of such overwhelming magnitude, it can be so easy to equate the person to the disease. But Ilene’s endeavors reminded us that her patrons are so much more than the illness with which they are grappling. Even though their behaviors change, the complexity and profundity of their personalities do not necessarily disappear. The advent of Alzheimer’s does not make a person any less of an individual.

So as you can see, the workshop presented us with no shortage of stories and ideas from Walker insiders. But we didn’t want to end the event without hearing from someone who has dedicated her entire career to helping people with Alzheimer’s through art.

That is where Sara Tucker from Chicago comes into the picture.

Stay tuned for Sara’s experiences as an art therapist working with people with Alzheimer’s, an enlightening Q&A session with three tour guides who conducted Contemporary Journeys tours, followed by an Art Lab session which spawned, among other things, a can of spam! Part Two will be up next Thursday (7/29/10).

A Sign of Things to Come: Public ASL-Interpreted Tours at the Walker

   Hi everyone! Just to give you some tidbits about this newcomer: I’m Tan Jia-Li, a permanently disheveled Education and Community Programs intern from Carleton College who’s working extensively with tours and accessibility this summer. I’m currently majoring in art and like to talk about food far too much. Don’t worry – I’m not going […]

 

 Hi everyone! Just to give you some tidbits about this newcomer: I’m Tan Jia-Li, a permanently disheveled Education and Community Programs intern from Carleton College who’s working extensively with tours and accessibility this summer. I’m currently majoring in art and like to talk about food far too much.

Don’t worry – I’m not going to spend this post extolling the virtues of a good steak. Instead, let me just tell you about two fantastic things that the Walker Art Center has planned. First of all, the English and Spanish scripts to the Art-On-Call audio tours will be made available for the Guillermo Kuitca: Everything exhibition! If you would like one, just head over to the Bazinet lobby desk and ask. Secondly, we will be offering at least one ASL-interpreted public tour per month.

Why these endeavors? Because the world of the Walker is brimming with priceless learning opportunities, and they should be accessible to all.

But good intentions executed ignorantly can seriously backfire. Something hits the fan – it’s usually not a fly. Since the Walker has every intention of making sure this doesn’t happen, we held a workshop recently teaching our tour guides how to work with ASL interpreters and Deaf or hard-of-hearing patrons on the 16th of June. The invited speakers were Teika Pakalns, an art lover who is Deaf and also serves on the Walker’s Accessibility Advisory group, and Darlene Snelson, a professional ASL interpreter who has work experience with numerous art museums. Interpreting for Teika was Cori Giles.

As I silently swore at my malfunctioning laptop just a few minutes before 6 p.m., I realized I wasn’t too sure of what to expect of the event. Would the presentation strike a good compromise between illustrating the needs of Deaf patrons and addressing the concerns of the tour guides themselves? Would the speakers provide insights on Deaf culture in ways that summarize without overly homogenizing? And most importantly, would the Twins’ game create enough traffic problems to completely decimate our attendance?

What ensued was truly impressive. For one thing, many people showed up (and in surprisingly good moods). Better still; the speakers allayed all my initial doubts. The concerns of the interpreter, tour guide and patrons were each given sufficient attention, and questions from the floor were both welcomed and answered clearly. Teika’s overview of Deaf culture was concise but extremely pertinent. She dispelled commonly-held assumptions about ASL, stating that it is native to the United States and possesses its own grammatical structure and vocabulary that is unique from those belonging to English. Additionally, there are many different kinds of sign language and some Deaf people prefer to use their voices instead. Not forgetting to emphasize the sheer diversity of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, Teika took care to discourage guides from changing the content and presentation of the tour based on preconceived notions of their abilities.

 

 “Don’t infantilize. Talk to them as you would to those possessing normal hearing abilities. There are deaf people who’re very knowledgeable about art.” Teika said, stressing that being Deaf has nothing to do with one’s capability of appreciating art in a sophisticated manner. She added that guides should address Deaf patrons directly instead of asking the interpreter to pass on information, since the interpreter serves more as a verbal conduit than an active messenger.

Shifting attention to more specific details of the tours’ execution, Darlene talked about the ways guides should cater to Deaf patrons’ heavy reliance on visual information while keeping the interpreter’s personal constraints in mind. Maintaining clear sight lines is highly recommended; walking while talking is not so. The workshop also explored the idea of introducing interpreted lectures, discussions and art lab sessions, heavily aided by Teika’s outline of group interaction etiquette. Darlene underlined the importance of cooperation between tour guide and interpreter, suggesting that the two meet for a brief discussion prior to each tour.

In one of the Q&A sessions, a guide mentioned that some of the Walker exhibits contain musical elements. How would an interpreter translate any related information? Should they even be included in the tour? Teika’s response was thought-provoking and beautiful. Unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough to note it down verbatim, but hopefully my paraphrase does justice to what she said:

Some Deaf people will participate in music in unique ways and there are Deaf people who can still appreciate music. In fact, sign language is quite well-suited to describing music in certain ways. You have the combination of the visual and the audio, which makes for an entirely new art form. So yes, go ahead and include them.

 

Now, a confession: my attention span isn’t too good with evenings. At around 6:30 pm, it resignedly throws its hands in the air and goes out for a drink. But everything about this event gripped me to the core. During the workshop I recalled how most of my home city Kuala Lumpur’s museum and gallery tours aren’t ASL-interpreted, leaving the Deaf or hard-of-hearing to rely on what little information the brochures and gallery label descriptions have to offer. It is a sad and frustrating thought: this particular audience has been and still is being excluded from a world that should rightfully be open to all. So you can probably imagine why this workshop not only gives me a better idea of the Walker’s accessibility-related efforts but also valuable inspiration which, in more ways than one, hits rather close to home.