Tina Wu

For some, dementia may be an inescapable part of life. But a new art program, founded specifically for dementia patients, can be a means of enriching their lives through creativity, according to Danielle Gullotta, Access Programs Producer from the Art Gallery of NSW.

The Art and Dementia program as part of the gallery’s Access Programs scheme aims to do just that. By designing specific exhibitions for people suffering from dementia, the gallery hopes to creatively and socially engage these particular members of the community through art.

“You have to understand that for a lot of older people who may be in the early or later stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s, often being asked their opinion about something that’s creative and about the imagination is not something that would happen every day,” says Gullotta.

“We hope that the program shows that all people, including people with dementia, have the capacity to imagine and be creative in the later stages of life.”

The Art Gallery of NSW’s Access Program was established over 10 years ago out of responsibility to the public as a state gallery to create “an inclusive and diverse society”, with the Art and Dementia program founded under this scheme in 2010. Approximately 1000 placements were offered in the program over the last two years alone for dementia patients, their carers and community groups.

Gullotta attributes the program’s popularity to the joy and feeling of inclusion that it inspires, with research highlighting the program’s positive impact on the overall wellbeing of dementia patients.

“The program is not based on people having prior knowledge or remembering what they saw before,” says Gullotta. “It’s about in-the-moment pleasure. Being here, being in the moment, feeling that joy that will stay with them for hours or maybe even days.”

Based around a monthly theme, Gullotta and other trained facilitators choose three to four artworks from a current mainstream exhibition and curate them specifically for those with dementia and other disabilities, particularly noting floor space, lighting, and seating arrangements.

Each meticulously planned and structured program lasts one hour. “All our programs start off with a looking experience, asking people what they see, a discussion-based experience, and then engaging people in personal meaning-making and to promote that social experience,” says Gullotta.

The Access Program’s most recent exhibition involved artworks from Mikala Dwyer’s playful A shape of thought showcase, its large-scale installations striking the perfect balance between forcing people out of their comfort zones and being engaging on a sensory level. Next on the calendar, the Gallery’s Dutch masters will be on display in February to allow dementia patients the chance to study the beauty of still life.

To book for the next Art and Dementia program or specific tours for those with disabilities, visit artgallery.nsw.gov.au.