To serve its considerable population of senior citizens, New York City operates senior centers at sites across its five boroughs. As a way to enhance the programming offered at these facilities, the city launched an artist-in-residency program that matched local artists with senior centers, providing coveted workspace to artists in exchange for a commitment to provide creative arts-based programming for seniors.
At eight million residents strong, New York City is home to just about every kind of demographic, including a broad spectrum of ages. Senior centers are a key element of the City’s efforts to address the needs of its older adults, as physical places where seniors can go for support, social engagement, and basic needs. Funded by the New York City Department for the Aging (DFTA), the city maintains over 250 senior centers dispersed across the five boroughs that comprise the city. The centers are run by independent organizations contracted to provide services to the City’s older adults. Collectively, these help reach approximately 7,000 seniors each day.
It is estimated that by 2030, New York’s 60+ population will significantly increase to a projected 1.84 million, a 47% increase from 2000. This group will comprise 20% of the total population compared with 15.6% in 2000. Consequently, the elderly, who were less than one in every six New Yorkers in 2000, will make up one in every five in 2030. This demographic shift presents new opportunities for programming and services. Though demographics vary for each senior center, in general, more than half the seniors who make use of these centers tend to come from low-income backgrounds and currently live below the poverty line. Most have little access to cultural resources, arts programming, or other enrichment programs.
Because these senior centers serve as critical nodes for a large population, and because that population tends to be under-resourced (75% of senior center participants have incomes of less than $20,000 per year) and lacking in cultural opportunities, there was a strong need to offer arts and enrichment programs. In New York City, where the arts thrive, but where artists struggle to find commissions and affordable workspace, there was also a need to support local artists that have so long helped define the culture of the city.
To address these two disparate needs simultaneously, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) and DFTA launched Seniors Partnering with Artists Citywide (SPARC), which would serve as an artist-in-residency program where the residency would be located within a senior center. Selecting 50 artists, SPARC would pair one artist with one of 50 senior centers. In a win-win arrangement, artists would get access to affordable workspace, and seniors would get access to arts programming. This would also enhance the place of senior centers in the community. As Kristin Sakoda, Deputy General Counsel at the Department of Cultural Affairs remarked, “the program would offer new opportunities for senior centers to act as vital community resources and hubs of activity.” It would also play a significant role in the lives of individual residents. “SPARC positively impacted the wellbeing of seniors through arts-based activities that brought genuine arts experiences to participating seniors and their communities.”
SPARC is co-led by two New York City mayoral departments—DCA and DFTA—in collaboration with the city’s five local arts councils: the Bronx Council on the Arts, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the Queens Council on the Arts, Brooklyn Arts Council, and Staten Island Arts. The Arts Councils, which are independent nonprofit organizations, provided a critical link between the overall program and their respective borough-specific constituent artists, facilitating outreach, liaising with senior centers, and managing communications. Each of the 50 senior centers collaborated closely with the city departments and arts councils, working directly with the artist residents.
With artists from different disciplines and with an array of senior centers in different communities, selecting and matching artists became a key step in the process. Putting out a call-for-artists (that yielded 224 applicants), the city advanced finalists to a panel review process run by each respective arts council. Each center’s director or programming director interviewed finalists, and advised the councils on preferences. Once selected, artists committed 40-60 contact hours with participating seniors and the development and implementation of a public program to showcase the produced artworks in exchange for access to working space from January to June. The diverse programs included activities based in dance, music, ceramics, drawing, painting, and photography. To culminate the project, each senior center hosted an exhibition of the work produced by the seniors and the artist during the residency.
- A call for artists distributed by the arts councils to solicit interested artists citywide
- A Q&A hosted by DCLA to inform interested artists on the details of the program and application process
- A competitive application process with review and selection of artists by DFTA, DCLA and the arts councils
- A Kick-Off event hosted by DCLA and DFTA with selected artists and senior center partners to provide project participants with proper tools for a successful project (included guest speakers from the field of creative aging)
- A residency cycle at the selected senior centers from January to June
As a result of the program, 50 artists developed creative arts-based activities at senior centers across New York City, engaging 913 unique senior participants. In total, SPARC put on 212 public events with a cumulative audience of over 5,500 and with a range of formats, including performances, exhibitions, and readings. One of the main objectives for the project was to enhance the quality of life for New York City seniors, but this outcome can be tricky to evaluate. To take this into account, SPARC implemented an evaluation process to assess these qualitative concerns. Using evaluative tools developed by DCLA with the assistance of DFTA’s professional research staff, organizers were able to survey a spectrum of quality-of-life indicators. Participant exit surveys revealed that 84% of respondents reported that they had met new people who attend the senior center since starting SPARC. A full 94% said they would participate in SPARC again if it were offered and 97% said they would recommend SPARC to a friend. Senior center directors also reported increases in quality of life indicators observed in their senior participants, including increases in positive attitude, creative expression, exercise of body/mind, mastery of an art form and social engagement. For the artists, the program provided highly coveted workspace over the residency period with over 240 hours spent by artists on their own art work in senior center space. This effect was not without its challenges: with large variation in resources and building types, the space in some senior centers limited privacy, technical capacity, security, and hours of operation.
Though it was methodically programmed, SPARC availed itself to the serendipitous outcomes that emerge from pairing an artist with a community. By all accounts, this created overwhelmingly positive results. As DCLA reports, “senior participation in SPARC crossed language, socioeconomic, and ethnic lines, bringing together participants that would not ordinarily interact.” Some seniors took the initiative to continue working with the content of the program after the program itself ended. For example, in one Brooklyn center where artist Lee Johnson worked with seniors to create a collection of small ceramic cups, the seniors launched a store on etsy.com to sell the cups, which generated income to repair the center’s kiln. There were unanticipated impacts for artists as well. Artists interested in working with the older adult population gained access to senior participants for collaboration and to inform their artistic projects, particularly in oral history and reminiscence-based works. Many artists also reported that SPARC deepened their artistic practice and appreciation of their work, and broadened their perception of older adults. SPARC also generated unexpected employment opportunities for artists and arts administrators, with one arts council hiring a new part-time administrator for SPARC with its NEA-funded stipend and two artists reporting new employment in arts-based work with seniors following their participation in SPARC. So even though the program had a start- and end-date, many of the impacts will continue long after the grant period terminates. “This unexpected outcome will have a long-lasting positive impact on the population of each unique center.” While sources of long-term funding remain unclear, a new cycle of programming will be offered at 50 participating senior centers in the coming year.
“Don’t schedule arts programming at a senior center at the same time as lunch or bingo!” – Kristin Sakoda, Deputy General Counsel, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs