First Installment, April 12, 2023—Although based on real events, all names are fictitious except for Sarah.
Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.
The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized. Yet, the tunnel is a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of our society and ourselves.
The next chapters are about my quest to bring the vision of art to other Sarahs living in their tunnels.
The Great Mall
I stood looking at it in the graying light of early autumn—a vast rectangle of flat, institutional grass. Dry, trampled, and partially dead, scorched by another relentless Washington summer, distantly recalling the tinted, artificial verdancy of the standard tourist postcard. Before, and behind me rose two of our country’s most renowned symbols: in front, the pointed, vertical monument every American knows, while in back, the low, rounded dome of the Capitol, the other half of our national consciousness.
But I had not come to the Great Mall this overcast afternoon to visit them or any other of the official patriotic sites. Instead, I was here to see the museums, making a personal pilgrimage to the city’s lowest plain, far from the heights of Sarah’s Cathedral neighborhood where she had died barely a month ago.
It was a panorama I had always viewed with ambivalent feelings—a parade of museums marching in slow motion, up and down the mall, each occupying its solitary place. Big, stone islands of nondescript color, neutral shades—off-white, nearly brown, possibly pink, probably green—the monotony interrupted briefly by the deep red brick of the original Smithsonian Castle, and, on certain fine days, the pearly incandescence of the National Gallery, sparkling in full sunlight.
The buildings encompassed a conglomerate of architectural designs as well. Pseudo neoclassical, authentic Gothic revival, and lastly, undetermined modern, a style that dominated the present decade, all too apparent in the massive glass hanger of the Air and Space Museum and the gritty concrete doughnut of the Hirshhorn.
No oder, no logic, no overall plan, the museums were simply placed in sporadic succession, assembled in bits and pieces over a century of time. In my heart, I knew that this world was foreign to me, both sterile and unreal, devoid of the spiritual continuum of history I had experienced in Florence and Rome.
Yet, despite my doubts, I had journeyed here again, searching for a new beginning, away from the past of failed job aspirations toward the fulfillment of a future dream. For in order to succeed, I had to believe in the Great Mall once more; not just its network of institutions but the people who were part of them—the curators, docents, technicians, and other staff. And that somehow, someday, by working together, we would bring not only the beauty of art but also the knowledge of all the museums to other waiting Sarahs in other tunnels.
Or so I thought.
It took almost a year for me to crisscross the mall, transporting myself and my dream back and forth, the length and breadth of museum row. From secretary to assistant to the curator, I conscientiously wound my way through the office labyrinth behind the imposing institutional facades. A bureaucratic sanctum of departments and divisions, committees and task forces, classifications and grades, normally off limits to the general public but which I was now privileged to enter.
Initially, I was surprised how quickly the staff responded to my calls, contrasting with my rather cool reception when inquiring about employment opportunities in the recent past. In fact, out of the six museums I originally contacted (four of them art, the other two in a related area), only one curator did not invite me for an appointment to discuss my outreach program.
The concept of outreach did not originate with me; I first read about it in a museum education magazine. Outreach services focus on bringing the resources of the museum—cultural, historical, or scientific—into the community through lectures, slide presentations, and demonstrations given at local facilities, primarily as preparation for an actual tour of the museum. Some of the museums in the mall did offer these programs, but at the time solely to one population—school children.
Outreach is a valuable contribution to education, though in my opinion, underutilized and poorly developed. For example, a two-part package of an introductory session and museum trip was typically scheduled once or twice a year for students in the Washington area. The benefits, I was certain, had to be temporary. How could an infrequent, isolated experience have any long-term impact?
However, my outreach project would both expand the type of audience reached and enrich the content, by providing an in-depth series of weekly slide presentations on a particular artist, theme, or period of art history. I had learned at Sarah’s nursing home that regularity was essential to the success of our classes, particularly with the older adult group with its numerous mental and physical disabilities.
Although I was not clear about the exact steps, I did believe that it was imperative for me to play a leading role in my project’s implementation. I envisioned myself as a liaison—a go-between linking the museums, nursing homes, and the community.
I was positive that no staff member of any museum had the expertise I had gained during my summer teaching in the Blue Room. If a curator were willing to commit his or her department to implementing my project, we could possibly seek funding for a model program, and it seemed only logical that I would function as the principal consultant.
Unfortunately, my expectations were doomed from the beginning, automatically condemned by the Great Mall, my main sin being an outsider, idealistic and naive. Ideas and their creators, I would learn, were expendable, at the mercy of the institution and its employees.
In retrospect, I labeled it the museum runaround, starting near Christmas and finishing the following autumn. The process was painless while it was occurring; indeed my mood was often close to euphoric, buoyed by constant hope and anticipation. Only later, when the consequences were fully apparent, did the frustration and hurt really begin for me.
Probably if I had been more astute and less trusting, I would have grasped the truth earlier. And yet, the deception had proceeded gradually, one museum at a time. For I never contacted two facilities simultaneously, spacing each one at polite intervals. When it became evident that my prospects at one museum were diminishing, I allowed a month or so before I approached the next curator on my list.
During this period, though, a pattern did evolve—a repetitious design woven by almost every curator I met with and sometimes, his or her willing assistant. They, my potential colleagues, constituted a diverse group, not defined by an particular age or sex: young or old, man or woman, Ph.D.s or undergraduates, seasoned as well as inexperienced. Although not all of them were guilty—one was honest and direct—most were culpable, their motives more than suspect.
Inevitably, the first stage in each curator’s informational scheme was the meeting. A friendly affair, opening with a warm welcome, succeeded by a personable exchange, professional in intent, but congenial in spirit. My interviewer was always supportive and enthusiastic about my outreach project, declaring a ready eagerness to cooperate immediately.
“What can we do for you?” and “How can we help you?” were common refrains. “Just tell us,” seemed to be the attitude, and we’ll respectfully and humbly listen.
Then the promises, the second phase, graciously extended by the curator either during or just after the meeting. These vague guarantees varied according to the museum, ranging from my instructing docent training seminars to a presentation of art lectures at Sarah’s nursing home by one of the curators, to sponsoring me with a grant proposal from a local funding source.
Of course, in each case, I was assured that our relationship would certainly continue beyond these preliminary measures. I could expect genuine support from the museum and participating staff in the future.
And, lastly, the fade-out—-the disheartening conclusion, marked by a dwindling interest and cursory phone communications that seemed to lead nowhere except to excuses—illnesses, vacations, and overwork—and finally silence.
So I gave up my quest, discouraged, frustrated, and above all, confused. What had I done wrong, I asked myself? Had I inadvertently offended someone, perhaps been too aggressive? Or had I been overly timid, not sufficiently confident in my overtures?
It would be a few years before I discovered the real reason.
COMING TUESDAY: IT ALWAYS SEEMED LIKE AUTUMN
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