Arts Everyday Living: Beyond the Tunnel–Tiny Slips of Paper–The Trail to Museum One

Although based on real events, all names are fictitious except for Sarah and a few others.

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.



Tiny Slips of Paper

Chapter 15

Return to the Great Mall

From tiny slips of paper, the organization evolved during the next year. Pink and yellow phone messages seemed to track me during those 12 months. An endless trail of titles and functions, requests and offerings. An activities director scheduling an art appreciation series, a foundation officer discussing a grant proposal, a free-lance writer interviewing for a story, or a volunteer contributing her leisure hours.

When did this new stage of my life officially begin? In December, with the $1,000 funding from Ruth’s ANC? Or The Washington Post article published on Christmas day that eventually attracted more than 20 volunteers? Or in January, when I resigned from my office job to devote myself completely to Museum One?

If I had fully considered the precariousness of my position—no permanent job, a paucity of money, and the probability of exhaustion—I would have quit before I started. But the allure and exhilaration of independence obscured any potential risks. Because I was finally creating something, no longer bound by employers or institutional rules. I was my self-appointed boss and director, free to succeed or fail when I willed it, in my own time.


It was the period of part-time jobs: of overlapping commitments and extended days, conflicting duties and frenzied pace. Museum One was the priority and raison d’être for this endurance test, while the second occupation was meant solely as a supplement, providing stability and a regular (if partial) paycheck.

I knew when I initiated my search in February that the job had to be purely secretarial without pressure or responsibility, so I could concentrate exclusively on Museum One’s affairs. Any type of employment would suffice from a bank to an association to Capitol Hill. I applied everywhere and without discretion, availability and speed in hiring being the key factors.

Ironically, I was led again to the Great Mall, not to a classification of researcher or museum specialist or any work commensurate with my experience or degree. But to an opening as a clerk-typist in the mathematics department of the history and technology museum—a job perfectly suited to my current specifications.

A friend had kindly informed me of its vacancy. “An art historian working for a curator of mathematics!” I laughed incredulously to myself just after I was hired in March. It was so sad it was funny. How strange, even bizarre, that I would end up in an area so opposite from art.

From then on, my existence was schizophrenic—split between two unequal halves. Phase One would start in the morning, Monday through Friday, from 8:00 to 12:00, except for holidays or a three-day weekend. A schedule as routine and mundane as I had originally anticipated, yet by its very repetitiousness, quickly becoming a daily ordeal.

Four hours of tedious and monotonous tasks, adhering to the same unvarying regime: the long trek to to the photocopying machine where I copied tons of materials, the meticulous logging of every particle of mail, the constant fights for the word processing machine, and the ongoing frustration with government forms and regulations.

By 11:55, I would be sitting at attention, my eyes fixed on the office clock, praying for the last interminable five minutes to pass before I could be sprung into the afternoon and well into the evening. At precisely 12:00, Phase Two, would commence. I would make my frantic exit out the door, rushing madly down the hall, into the overly slow elevators, rushing through the congested city streets, ultimately to the subway or bus stop—usually for a destination far away in the northwest side of the city, close to the Maryland border.

I would be racing to a potpourri of older adult sites—groups of 20 or so at centers, homes, clubs, chapters, apartment buildings—single-handedly blanketing the community with Museum One’s presence, particularly in Ward III where I lived. I was a one-person blitz, determined to reach every facility at least once with special slide-lectures on French or American Impressionism, laying the groundwork for more extensive art appreciation programming, comparable to the series and courses already presented at Sarah’s and Erica’s tunnels.

On other days, I would meet with my volunteers—the solution, I thought then, to Museum One’s personnel needs. Recruited primarily through newspaper and newsletter articles, I would confer with them individually over a lunch or snack. Mainly retired women, interested in expanding their horizons through art, but a few artists and teachers; others were between jobs or dissatisfied with their current employment. Instructor, typist, publicist, writer, fund-raiser—Museum One had a multitude of payless occupations that I attempted to fill.

I might be at an art museum, either taking a tour of a temporary exhibition or borrowing slides from the lending collection. Or, if I somehow actually were able to go home, then I would embark on a barrage of phone calls to all the contacts I was unable to call during my museum job.

Sometimes, I felt as if I were in a competition, though basically with myself, driven by a self-imposed agenda of projected targets and impending deadlines. A game with no obvious challenger, and yet I often sensed that some invisible opponent was trying to overwhelm and outdistance me. Was it my imagination? Was I becoming paranoid?

Within the files of the museum I soon found my answer—in press releases and memos of recent years that had circulated internally across the Great Mall and between the museums. Announcements about outreach series specifically designed for older adults which, except for one, were under the departments of the curators to whom I had confided my dream.

I had had some inkling before, when I had seen a program listing for a museum speaker at a senior center, and again in a nursing home calendar of events, although I hadn’t realized the connection. Yet despite my anger at my discovery, I was almost relieved.

For now I truly knew my adversary.





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