By Permission of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Getting a moment away from your desk to stop a take a look around you is one thing, but it’s not very often you get a chance to do so in another country. This spring I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit Japan as part of a Study Visit organised by the British Council. Over the course of four days myself and a cross-arts UK delegation spent time in Tokyo and Kyoto viewing activities, talking to colleagues, speaking at forums and participating in panel discussions. It was an enriching and challenging experience.

People in Britain are living longer than ever before, and aging, in-particular aging well, is high on the agenda. In the UK 65 year old already outnumber 16 year olds. The picture is much more advanced in Japan. Here the population is aging faster than any other country on the planet. 1 in 4 of the population is over 65 and by 2065 38% of the Japanese population will be over 65. Having a chance to share knowledge with health and social professionals, researchers and arts practitioners working within this context was both fascinating and arresting. Our cross-disciplinary conversations explored how to best support this audience, as we will only be able to do so if we bring together our resources and expertise.

Reflecting back, a number of key themes emerged for me from my time in the blossoming Sakura season; empathy, inclusion and agency. Let’s start with inclusion. On our first day in Tokyo we were invited to see a music session at a residential home in Tokyo run by Tokyo Bunka Kaikan musicians. The session built from familiar songs to improvisation by the participants as they used the instruments provided to respond to the music. Their individual sounds wove together to create a shared piece. For me, the musicians facilitating the session’s care and support when working with the older people spoke volumes. There was an attention to individuals and a personal layering. It included people on their terms and was a reminder that designing for inclusion is as important with older people as with any other audiences. Our discussion after the session centred around how we all have different goals, needs and strengths as individuals and this doesn’t stop when you reach a certain age. Bringing participants into your planning and shaping of programmes and projects as well as giving them the lead in activities is an active way to promote inclusion. 

At Dulwich we’re currently running a project called PARTners where people with dementia, their carers, charities supporting people with dementia, learning facilitators and Gallery staff are working together to create a visit resource for people with dementia. By co-producing this resources together with a range of different perspectives, from both groups and individuals, we are designing for inclusion from the outset. The resource will support a spectrum of people with dementia to use the gallery confidently as well as broaden awareness of audience needs. 

Our whistle stop tour also took us to Kyoto for two days. Amongst temples and cherry blossoms we spoke to the local government culture team who had been working with contemporary dancer, Midori Kurata, and a marginalised community group behind the station to create a performance piece that told their stories. Sharing the stage with the participants the contemporary dance solos physicalized their unspoken histories in a joint experience. To achieve such a rich telling both Kurata and the local authority team had spent time with the participants listening to their stories, taking part in their everyday life and truly understanding and sharing their personal journeys. An emotional process for both, it reaffirmed for me how important it is to think about how we would want to be treated as individuals at all stages in our life and the need for empathy to ground our work with older people. This idea of empathy is also echoed through in the Japanese policy around care for older people such as the Orange Plan which looks to build Dementia-friendly communities where the focus is on place and supporting people through creating shared experiences. 

At Dulwich we are piloting a training and development programme called Together through art in partnership with South London and Maudsley Mental Health Recovery College. The programme will empower Older People with mental health issues to train and develop their skills as creativity and wellbeing facilitators. Working alongside an artist they will create sessions which will be delivered across our different audience programmes building awareness of how art can support wellbeing. Valuing each individual’s lived experiences and personal resilience the pilot programme aims to enable all audience to connect emotionally with their journeys and reflect on their own personal experiences.

Finally agency; a word that needed unpacking to translate fluidly across our two languages. In fact, the need to explain and discuss what we each meant by this term was a really useful exercise in itself. We landed on the shared idea that agency means giving older people a sense of control and say in our institutions. It goes beyond consultation and promotes a sharing of power and the ability to make change. One of the ways in which this can be achieved is through designing activities to be audience-led. In Kyoto, Jun Suzuki, a musician told our party about a fascinating project built around improvisation and a “sandbox” approach where a trusted and safe environment enabled older people to initiate and lead music making. In this approach the idea of in the moment spontaneity is both empowering and provides agency. No one knows where it is going but participants are leading the way.

This also echoed the work of the Royal Academy of Music in the UK whose project “With all' project, explores co-creativity in the area of arts and dementia. We were lucky enough to have Julian West, from the RA as part of our delegation in Japan to feed into this rich conversation, refocusing on what is happening now, than what has been lost. At Dulwich building co-production into how we shape and deliver our programmes for older audiences has shifted our approach. Our new Older People’s Programming group aims to create a forum where we are listening and working honestly with our audiences to give them equal voice in decision making and shaping our offer. Different people from across our Older People’s programme will join together to shape offers, not only for this audience but across our programming strands. As an organisation it requires a cultural shift but with care, collaboration and risk taking as our core values it feel the most apt way to put our vision into action.

I am truly grateful to have had this opportunity and I know this is only the start of an ongoing dialogue with our Japanese colleagues. We have so much to learn from one another that I look forward to carrying on conversations and building shared initiatives. With people living longer what we think of as retirement and old age has shifted substantially. To remain relevant and responsive we need to be working with our audiences. Here as in Japan our approach needs to be ever nuanced to keep up with these changes and to do what’s best for all of us to age well.

Jane Findlay (Head of Learning, Dulwich Picture Gallery)

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