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Art can change your world


Newcastle University researchers have shown it’s never too late to change your mind.

As we get older, we’re more likely to be thought of as ‘set in our ways’, but researchers have discovered that art can in fact fundamentally change our sense of who we are.

For the initial project, they took groups of older people to major exhibitions in the North East of England to discover how they responded to contemporary visual art and whether these effects lasted beyond the initial encounter.

“The widely held belief that older people are stuck in their ways is not borne out at all by our findings,” explained Andrew Newman, principal investigator. “Three visits to a gallery is nothing and yet we saw a rapid change in opinions. It wasn’t unusual for participants to go from initially being uncertain to talking knowledgeably about the art by the final visit.”

For many taking part it was their first experience of contemporary visual art and they were initially unable to understand the artworks in terms of what the artist intended to communicate. However, they quickly begun to use their own life histories - such as childhood memories and holidays - to make sense of them, enabling a sense of continuity between then and now.

For example, one 79-year-old had given up knitting after she had a stroke and moved into sheltered accommodation. She picked up some needles again at the Knitted Lives exhibition in the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead and was able to knit successfully, enabling her to re-establish links with her previous life. It also had a positive effect on the present as she went on to help set up a knitting group in the sheltered accommodation.

Mr Newman and colleague Anna Goulding, of the International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies, are heading to the Museum of Modern Art in New York this month (April) to share their research on how older people’s lives can be improved through engagement with contemporary visual art.  

As part of this research, they have produced a short film that shows a more creative way of working in art galleries. “Unlike many projects in this field, this is not about reminiscence, it’s about using the imagination to create something new,” said Ms Goulding.  “Art can take us out of our normal lives and enable us to change our thinking, which can have a profound influence on how we relate to the world around us.”

The New Dynamics of Ageing programme funded the research and a follow-on project about developing informed arts policy and intervention guidance that could have significant implications for museums and galleries.

“These institutions could have a greater role to play in an ageing society,” said Mr Newman. “Visits can be personally and collectively beneficial for older visitors and help them have a positive sense of self, which is crucial for successful ageing and helping to maintain self-esteem.”

They are now building upon this work with a £1.5m AHRC Communities, Cultures, Health and Wellbeing research project, led by Bangor University. They will look at how the visual arts can enrich the lives of older people with dementia by reconnecting them with their communities.

“Many people believe it takes a major life event to change the trajectory we’re on, especially as we approach older age, but we found that art can actually have a similar effect in a remarkably short space of time,” added Mr Newman. “We were surprised to find that our sense of art is quite fundamental to our make-up.”

These projects add to Newcastle University’s work under the Newcastle Initiative on Changing Age and the Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal. This is the University’s response to societal challenges by seeking new ways to make the most of the extensive opportunities associated with increasing human longevity, while also solving some of the problems.

published on: 9 April 2013