Art in the Moment Tours

Jul 29, 2015

Last week I was privileged to observe an Art in the Moment tour at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Art in the Moment is a program that has been developed in conjunction with the Toronto Alzheimer’s Society. It consists of a gallery tour for up to twelve participants (visitors with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia and care-givers). Gallery Guides (volunteers) lead the group in discussions and reminiscing activities based on a variety of artworks and companions and visitors with Alzheimer’s or dementia receive free admission.Toronto

Art in the Moment is a program that was pioneered at the Art Institute of Chicago. The program at the AIC uses trained art therapists from CJE SeniorLife (a private company), in collaboration with the Art Institute’s museum educators and volunteers to provide creative discussions in the museum galleries, and art-making projects in a studio setting. Participants at the Art Institute explore ideas about art and artists during their visit to the museum galleries, and make connections with the art using personal experiences. Caregivers are able to explore art while the person in their care is safe and engaged, and they may also interact with and share experiences with other caregivers.

The Art Gallery of Ontario tour that I observed did not have a studio art component, but the two volunteers who led the group were very skilled at eliciting reactions, commentary and appreciation of the artworks from the group. Eleven participants (including caregivers) from the Toronto Alzheimer’s Society, plus the coordinator, Jennifer Carr were introduced to the guides, Pat and Val, at the coat check area. Careful to ask, “Do you have any questions?” and “Is there anything you especially want to see?” after a brief introduction to the subject, “Seasons”, Pat and Val also told the group that they were going to be able to do something very special at the end of the tour as well. The box of gloves in Pat’s hand rather gave the surprise away, clearly being able to touch some of the artworks was on the agenda.

Participants were guided first to a small gallery in the Canadiana area of the AGO, and small stools were provided for everyone. Seated facing a smallish painting of a little girl in a straw hat with a bundle of flowers and grasses in her arms, the group proceeded to learn about Paul Peel’s “The Gleaner.” Asked about how the painting made them feel, the participants suggested that it was summer, that the girl was at the seaside, and that it made them feel happy and peaceful. The girl was pronounced “looking satisfied” with her gleaning, and some details about the short life of this French-influenced Canadian painter were shared with the group. A few more paintings by the same painter were shared on an iPad, and the group was asked if the paintings brought back memories of children or grandchildren at the beach.

In the same small gallery, by turning around, the group was shown a painting of a winter scene (“Ice Cutting, Quebec” by Maurice Cullen). There was more discussion here about the ice-man bringing ice from the lake in his ice-truck to cool foods, houses, and the Princess Alexandra Theatre on King Street in the early twentieth century, elicited comments about the cold in winter, the time of day of the painting, and the horse’s point of view. A female security guard came by to whisper something to the volunteers, and to greet the group – a nice touch, I thought.

Moving further on into the Canadiana galleries, the group focused on a Lawren Harris painting of spring, again commenting on the time of year, the quality of light in the painting, and the colours used to evoke those qualities. The guides also added some background information about the Group of Seven’s ability to visit the Canadian landscapes they painted, in part due to Lawren Harris’ financing of their trips. A painting next to the one under discussion elicited more comment, “Voice of God” “Virgin Mary” “Second coming” and a discussion by the gallery volunteers about Lawren Harris’ theosophy and spiritual leanings.

The paintings tour ended with a single glove given to each person in the group and stools put away. The group was ushered into the Galleria at the front of the building, where questions about memories and imagery evoked by the open space bounded by soaring wooden beams and glass were posed again. The Henry Moore sculpture gallery was the final destination for the tour. Here the group was told about the history of the gallery, and invited to touch a plaster sculpture of the artist’s mother. A second touch experience offered was the bronze sculpture of the Warrior, along with a short explanation of the lack of faces on the sculptures and the sensory differences between plaster and bronze.

According to the information on the Art in the Moment app tours available for the Art Institute of Chicago, “Art directly engages the imagination and original thoughts of viewers and thus focuses on capabilities and strengths not directly impacted by one’s age or ability to remember certain events. Art has also been shown to help people with dementia access long-term memories and to become fully engaged in the present moment.”

Art in the Moment at the Art Gallery of Ontario admirably fulfills the premise of engaging the imaginative and original thoughts of its participants. It focuses on the capabilities and strengths of those whose may no longer be able to access memories, but are able to experience and enjoy art in in the present. The group that I followed clearly enjoyed their experience.

Group tours can be booked with three weeks notice (depending on volunteer availability), either by e-mailing Melissa Smith or by calling 416 979-6660 ext. 268. Individuals and their companions can join an Art in the Moment group visit by contacting the Toronto Azheimer Society of Canada: or by calling 416 322-6560.

(photo © Art Gallery of Ontario)

*Elka Weinstein, Toronto (Canadá).