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Giving, Receiving, and a Spirit of Exchange: Gallery Education at the Service of Mental Health Groups

Date et heure
Mercredi 25 septembre 2013

Giving, Receiving, and a Spirit of Exchange: Gallery Education at the Service of Mental Health Groups

Sometime ago, my colleague shared with me a question she regularly asks herself in her role as a curator: How am I of service? This immediately called to mind a quote by the feminist/activist/educator bell hooks, who a decade ago wrote that educators who ask,“‘What do you need in order to learn?’ or ‘How can I serve?’ bring to the work of educating a spirit of service that honors students’ will to learn”. [1]

In this same spirit Vanessa and Ashli, two community mental health workers, generously took the time to answer a few questions we had regarding their ongoing participation in DHC/ART Education activities with their groups. Our questions stemmed from a wider concern lying outside our field of expertise but directly affecting the work we do: How do issues around mental health and social integration/inclusion intersect to create particular adult learning needs?

In what ways were we succeeding in meeting these needs, and how could we continue to adapt what we do in order facilitate both learning and agency – to better serve? Exchanging with key workers is a first step; as we build relationships of trust, the exchange continues with our community partners and with participants themselves — from whom we hope you’ll be hearing from soon.

Group Learning in a New Context: “Our group visits to DHC/ART help demystify art and encourage individuals in the group to experience and question the art in his or her own way.” Participants “figure out how they feel about it, what they think about it and how to express that to a fellow member who is trying to do the same thing.” This demands both flexibility and adaptability on the part of the educator; examples include compassion and awareness of what is commonly perceived as ‘problematic’ participant behaviour (for example momentarily breaking away from the group) and discussion themes that respects participants’ abilities (for example understanding the distinction between mental health and intellectual delays).

Breaking Isolation: “It can be isolating, moving from residence to hospital to appointment after appointment. A person might not be working, doing the things one might associate with a ‘normal’ life… Being labeled mentally ill can eclipse lots of other facets of a person; this can be tough. Some people might have symptoms, behaviours, or side effects that they are learning to deal with that might complicate socializing…. Encountering contemporary art is a way of exercising intellectual muscles that sometimes, I think, get a little lost… I think that’s good for self-confidence, and I think learning to think about the world critically and creatively (either through the art itself or the conversations it inspires) is an excellent tool.

Challenging Stigma and Creating Space: Interactive and responsive visits are at the core of our approach, and the values of recognition and respect that ground the following strategies are consistent with ours:
- using participants’ impressions to guide the discussion, “without letting the discussion go too far in any direction
- sharing information, interpretations, and feelings about the artworks once participants have had a chance to move around and experience the work on their own
- exploring both abstract thoughts and how the art relates to participants’ particular experiences and expertise:  “it’s okay to have a conversation about mental health if it’s relevant. It’s something that a lot of people, including museum and gallery educators, shy away from.”

Thank you Vanessa and Ashli!

Emily Keenlyside
DHC/ART Education

Photo: Marie-Hélène Lemaire

[1] (2003) Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope.  New York: Routledge.

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