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Creative Age Rethinks How Museums Serve Seniors

January 14, 2016

Museums are, first and foremost, providing a public service. As such, a museum must serve every area of its community, and community outreach is at the heart of the Columbia Museum of Art’s mission. When we noticed a way to better serve a critical part of the Columbia community—adults aged 70 and older—we decided to act. In 2013, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded the CMA a three-year grant to launch the Creative Age Inititive to provide improved accessibility and comfort in the CMA facilities and programs, along with increased opportunities for socialization. 

South Carolina is one of the fastest-growing states for aging individuals. Census projections predict that in 20 years, South Carolina’s senior population will more than double, and this population is most highly concentrated right here in the Midlands. 

One of the greatest challenges that seniors face is finding and maintaining a rich social life. Participation in the arts has been proven to enhance quality of life in many areas, and the Creative Age Initiative aims to strengthen the bond between social interaction and mental and physical well-being for its participants. 

In 2012, the American Alliance of Museum’s report, Trends Watch: Museums and the Pulse of the Future, highlighted the importance of including programming and initiatives for older adults. The report emphasized that involvement in museums contributes to visitors’ “health, well-being, and lifelong learning.” A 2001 study by George Washington University’s Center on Aging, Health, and Humanities found that older adults who engaged in cultural activities reported a higher overall health rating, fewer falls, less medication use, and fewer doctor’s visits. 

We knew that the CMA would be the perfect pioneer for an arts initiative for seniors in South Carolina. The CMA is the largest visual arts organization in the state and a community anchor in Columbia. Every year, CMA programs serve over 15,000 adults, and seniors make up over a fourth of the 160,000+ visitors we serve each year. As an arts institution committed to community outreach, we are dedicated to going beyond simply bringing older adults in the door; we are developing programs that suit their specific needs. 

“This initiative is something that we knew we needed to do, and Creative Age aligns with goals that are already essential to our strategic plan,” says CMA Deputy Director Joelle Ryan-Cook. “We are focused on developing innovative educational opportunities to promote lifelong learning, offering programs during weekday hours, and making public spaces comfortable and accessible. Creative Age is serving an important and growing part of our community.”

Along with the expertise of the CMA education and engagement staff, the Creative Age Initiative has developed with help from strategic partners who are working to increase the well-being of seniors. The S.C. Lieutenant Governor’s Office on Aging is the largest administrator of senior programs in the state and a leader in senior-related research. The Lourie Center is the largest recreation center for seniors in S.C., with a continually growing membership. The third strategic partner vital in making Creative Age a success is the CMA’s own Docent Corps. This dedicated group of volunteers is critical to making sure tours and programs suit the needs of older adults.

“We began a series of meetings to inquire and understand how to become more welcoming to seniors, handicapped visitors, and visitors with other special needs,” says CMA Docent Corps Liaison Katie Hirsch. “Both docents and staff have attended national and regional conferences to gather ideas and information. This is an ongoing project and the docents remain active and interested in its success! We look forward to an ever-widening museum audience.”

To help museums all across the country meet the needs of seniors, the CMA is developing a Creative Age toolkit to help small to medium-sized museums replicate and scale the initiative to fit their needs. 

“We have learned many lessons with this project,” says Ryan-Cook. “Sharing our successes, struggles, and opportunities with our colleagues is an essential component of the final year of the grant.”

The CMA is a place for people of all ages to be inspired. Through the Creative Age Initiative, we are creating experiences to engage the mind and enrich the spirit well into retirement. 

Supported by the IMLS and Leslie’s Legacy Fund.

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