Museums: All It Takes Is a Spark

At a recent public program at the Racine Art Museum called Jazz in June, the moderator asked the group if anyone played an instrument. Many people raised their hands but it was a typically non-verbal woman who made the biggest impact. She started playing the piano with her hands in the air, humming a tune, and soon the whole group was humming along. Experiences like this happen regularly at SPARK!

Spark LogoSPARK! is a joint project between eleven cultural institutions in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The goal is to provide programming for people with memory loss, such as older adults with Alzheimer's or Parkinson’s disease, and their caregivers in a comfortable, welcoming and stimulating environment. Each institution creates unique programming that pairs appreciation of art with a hands-on activity such as dance, poetry, painting or sculpting, to motivate the conversation and experience. For Tricia Blasko, Curator of Education at the Racine Art Museum (RAM) in Racine, Wisconsin, “having experiences that are in the moment rather than worrying about things from their past or what happened that morning,” is one of the goals of the program.

kath and kiva, watercolor with birds jazz in june hands

Right: Two SPARK! attendees show off their artwork; Left: Someone take inspiration during a Jazz In June session.
Images courtesy of the Racine Art Museum.


SPARK! began as a Helen Bader Foundation (HBF) initiative that took cues from "Meet Me at MoMA", a program at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to provide programming for people with dementia. The HBF provided funding to create the SPARK! Alliance, a collaboration between eleven participating institutions, the Alzheimer’s Association and Dr. Anne Basting of UWM Center of Aging and Community. SPARK! does more than bring people with memory loss into museums; it is a safe, fun environment focused on helping underserved people in our communities and their caregivers, who are oftentimes their spouses. At SPARK! art becomes a personal experience for the care couple, allowing them to connect emotionally and conversationally as they see, feel, and create in the moment. In the safe space of SPARK!, the individual with memory loss can be inspired to find their voice and express themselves in a way that is becoming more and more difficult as they grow older. “There is never a wrong way to express emotions, thoughts or feelings,” says Tricia Blasko, “and best of all, they have FUN!”

spark finishing touches (2)
spark hands

SPARK! Artist and the finished product.
Images courtesy of the Racine Art Museum.

SPARK!’s success can be seen in the sold-out attendance, and in the smiling faces of repeat participants. At the RAM the program is an art-making experience in “one of the largest studio class offerings in a museum in Wisconsin” with programs that combine visual imagery, visits into galleries, and music that relates to the topic. The program also brings in visiting artists and allows participants to touch various art objects or materials to provide a tactile experience. The institutions recognize and validate that they are working with adult audiences by providing activities, lessons and tours that any adult would enjoy. But perhaps more telling is the response the visitors have had, like that of a wife who brings her husband, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and their adult son, who has suffered from brain trauma. They rarely miss a session because, while outside of SPARK! they have lost many friends and social venues due to their trouble interacting with them, within SPARK!, the wife, who is the primary caregiver to her husband and son, has become part of a group of friends who are in similar situations and understand her needs. SPARK! is a social outlet for the whole family while also strengthening their bonds and exercising their minds.

SPARK! has plans to accommodate more participants by increasing the frequency of these events. One day the SPARK! Alliance hopes to include at-home care couples, as well as more museums. While the HBF funding is now over, they provided more than $100,000 for planning and implementation of SPARK! projects, allowing them to be free for participants. SPARK! continues to be funded from other avenues, but it still could use more help in order to achieve sustainability and growth. A promotional video about SPARK! can be found here.

I would like to thank Tricia Blasko, RAM’s Curator of Education, for sharing her institution’s stories. Right now there is a group of people in charge of SPARK!, but they are trying to find funding that would allow for one person to manage it, build a website and be the resource person for new museums and cultural institutions interested in starting their own SPARK! programs. In the meantime, if your museum is interested in becoming part of the SPARK! Alliance, please contact Jane Tygesson, a volunteer docent at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, for a copy of Opening Doors to Memory and Imagination, a how-to on starting a program for those with memory loss.

This post is dedicated to Kathy Cleaver, my first mentor, the person who first inspired me to work in cultural heritage, and whom I recently found out is suffering from memory loss.

Christian Hernandez is the Plinth contributor for the Central Region and an independent contractor for museums and cultural institutions in the US and Canada.