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Cross-Sector Partnerships Key to Institutionalizing Creative Aging

Category: Creative Aging

Lifetime Arts CEO/Co-founder Maura O’Malley, Daphne Kwok, Vice President, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Asian American & Pacific Audience Strategy at AARP, and Andrew Plumley, Senior Director of Equity and Culture at the American Alliance of Museums will discuss the impact and efficacy of multi-level, cross-sector collaborations in advancing creative aging. Moderated by Shannon K. McDonough, Deputy Director of Lifetime Arts. Session from the AAM Museum Summit on Creative Aging, July 29, 2021.


Shannon McDonough: Okay, welcome. Thank you for joining us for the cross-sector partnership discussion, and really explore how important this is to sustaining creative aging programming in the museum space.

Today, as you may know if you have been a part of the program already, we’re joined by Daphne Kwok, who is the vice-president of diversity, equity and inclusion, Asian America and Pacific Islander audience strategy at AARP. Her work empowers Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to choose how they live as they age. Ms. Kwok was appointed by president Barack Obama in 2010 to chair his advisory commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The commission served as the eyes and ears of the community, advising the president and the federal government about the issues impacting the AAPI community. Previously, Ms. Kwok was executive director of Asians and Pacific Islanders with Disabilities of California and the executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation in San Francisco. For 11 years, she was the executive director of the Organization of Chinese Americans, the national membership-based civil rights organization. She was the first elected chair of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, a network of national APA organizations. She also served as executive director of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies.

I would also like to welcome Maura O’Malley who is the co-founder and CEO of Lifetime Arts. Founded in 2008, Lifetime Arts is a nonprofit arts service organization that offers a positive, modern, artistic, and social lens through which to serve, inspire and engage America’s growing population of older adults. With nearly 40 years experience in arts management, including program design and implementation, arts education development, and community cultural work, she has informed policy and created innovative programming for adults and children with premier arts and education organizations, such as the New York City Department of Education, Studio in a School and Young Audiences. Named the 2017 Influencer in Aging by PBS Next Avenue, Maura contributes to the continued development of the creative aging field through cross-sector initiatives with major national partners, including the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, the American Alliance of Museums, the National Guild for Community Arts Education and the Teaching Artists Guild amongst others.

And then we also are pleased to welcome Andrew Plumley, who is the senior director of equity and culture at the American Alliance of Museums where he oversees both the AAM’s internal diversity equity, accessibility, and inclusion work, as well as the Ford, Walton and Mellon Foundation funded Facing Change: Advancing Museum Board Diversity and Inclusion initiative. He started his career in education where he advised higher education institutions on diversity and inclusion strategy, as well as provided access and success programming for Pell eligible students of color. A systems entrepreneur, Andrew focuses on creating lasting systems change for the communities he partners with and supports. He currently serves as the Young, Black and Giving Back Institute board chair, treasurer for the Committee to Elect Jeanne Lewis for DC City Council, an ATMTC diversity, equity and inclusion task force member and American Express NGen fellow, and has served as a city council-appointed police commissioner in the state of Vermont.

I am Shannon McDonough and I am the deputy director at Lifetime Arts. So we’re going to start this discussion today with a little context setting from Maura O’Malley. Maura, can you talk with us a bit about why internal, external, national and local partnerships are key to sustaining effective creative aging programming? This is something that you have spoken about extensively and what are your thoughts also on how the museum sector can get involved in providing programming directly to the community?

Maura O’Malley: Well, thanks Shannon and thanks Andrew and Daphne for this opportunity to have this conversation. In our work as a service organization, we aim to build the capacity of organizations to deliver and design creative aging programs in community. And what we have found from the very beginning is that this work can not be done alone, it is all dependent on partnerships at a level within a new institution, internal and external partnerships, and at every level. So we work across the country with state agencies, with regional agencies, with local community organizations and in each instance, because older adults are everywhere and part of every sector, the agencies and institutions and organizations that provide services need to collaborate. So as an example, in New York state where we’re working with the state arts council and the department for the aging to collaboratively fund and work and deliver creative aging programs in community.

So part of this thinking is around the idea that older adults are a common constituency across-sectors, whether parks and recreation, or health and human services or the arts council or the state library or whatever level, older adults are everywhere. And as we know from work that we’ve all been doing and learning around creative aging, the population is aging. So people are living longer, healthier lives, and it’s changing the way that organizations at every level do business and with whom they do business.

So in our work to really support creative aging programs, the development of local partnerships and regional partnerships and state partnerships and natural partnerships and partnerships within your own organization and who is your team is an important question to ask: who inside your own organization understands this work, can work with you on this work and has a stake in it? And the answer is generally that pretty much everybody has a stake in because everybody’s aging whether we consider ourselves in that aging club or not, the population and the people we serve is a continually growing aging population and we need as programmers, as institutions that support a work inside a community, we need to be aware of the kinds of partnerships that we can develop in order to move the work forward.

Shannon McDonough: Do you also see this as an opportunity to bring the museum to people who might not ordinarily be in the museum or to bring them in for different reasons that they might initially think that what is the museum for or what is it for in the context of my time?

Maura O’Malley: Right. Absolutely. I think that is a great opportunity. And museums actually across the country are doing terrific work in community, but it does mean looking outside the walls of the museum, whether it’s the immediate local community or the expanded community, but the great opportunities to bring the work and the content and holdings and the learning that museums can offer into the community to older adults, who, for whatever reason, can’t get to the museum, can’t access programming that the museum offers unless the museum comes to them. And that can be done these days so wonderfully either online and in person by developing community partnerships where older adults are. It really is an enormous improvement in the reach of museums and in the strength of their community programming by actually going outside and trying to make those connections and the community is ripe and willing and looking for to engage older adults. And so that really opens up the opportunity to reach all kinds of people who, for whatever reason, go to the museum.

Shannon McDonough: Thank you. Andrew, will you share some with us about some of the work you’ve already been doing and then how you see some of this extending into this creative aging programming space?

Andrew Plumley: Yeah, absolutely. And I’m fortunate to be in conversation with all of you today. I think as Maura was talking, my head was just going into how partnership work, both internal and external is really to me kind of we have to make sure that museums specifically understand that they are a part of a larger ecosystem that is helping support the communities in which they’re in. And so I think when we think about partnerships and creative aging work, museums are a particular piece, but there are so many other people that support the broad community. And so I think when I do go into many museums and I think the museum field specifically, it’s still quite insular in how it operates and so I want to challenge and encourage museum folks to again go outside of their own walls and go into the community. And as Maura was saying, I’ll get to a little bit of that later.

But when I was thinking about partnerships and museums, both internal and external, I think museums can think a little bit differently about partnerships, because I think fundamentally I believe that museums who have figured out how to do equitable and more inclusive partnerships are, I think, just doing a much better job of fulfilling their own actual missions and serving their respective communities. So this isn’t something that falls outside of what museums are supposed to do. And I think it’s pretty well known that I think for many museums, often the larger ones, they tend to struggle a little bit more, like many other large non-profits, to figure out how to best engage both the communities in which they serve and other organizations that might be able to support them in say specific educational programming around creative aging or reaching broader or more diverse audiences for instance.

And I think it should be stated here too, that as Maura said, there are some museums that are doing a really fantastic job of partnering in community and partnering with other organizations. And for me, in some of the work that I’ve been doing primarily with Black and brown led museums, they are really at the forefront of what actual equitable and inclusive partnership looks like because in many of their museums and many of our museums, the genesis of their museum was created and designed of, by and for the communities. And so it wasn’t like this museum was placed somewhere, this was really a community-centered focus around museums. And so I think that we should think about how we can actually mirror the partnership that they’re doing day in and day out in terms of programming, both for both for elders and all generations actually.

And Maura mentioned a couple other things. And I think when I think about the work we’re doing with the Facing Change initiative, which is really focused on board diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, a lot of questions come up around, “Well, we’re looking to partner, but we really don’t actually know how,” or, “We’ve tried to partner with X community and it hasn’t worked for so-and-so reasons.” And often one thing I ask and one thing that we actually don’t have a really good definition for often is what actual partnership looks like and what it’s supposed to look like. And then when you add terms like, what does equitable and inclusive partnership look like? We definitely don’t have definitions for that.

And so I think when we think about partnership, I encourage museums to really define what equity and inclusion mean to them and then when you actually dovetail that with partnership, that’s going to look a lot different than what your kind of formal standardized or default partnership looks like both internally within organizations, across-sector organizations and definitely in communities. So we’re going to have to do work differently and partner differently. And that means for many museums building up the capacity and often the cultural competency to actually do this work in much different ways. I mean, when we think about partnership, there are so many power dynamics at play and things that you actually have to be explicit about when thinking about who to partner with and who you’re aligned with in terms of values is really important so defining that across the organization is really, really important.

And Maura said that everyone should be involved in partnerships and I wholeheartedly agree with that, and I think the closer we can be and the closer we’re aligned in what equitable partnership looks like for us as a museum, the more aligned we’re going to be when we go out into community or have conversations cross-sector. So I think that was coming to mind to me when Maura was speaking.

And there are a few other things around Maura said, we have to go into community, I completely agree with that. And what I’ve often found with museums as well is there is a lack of commitment throughout the museum around partnership. Often I see education departments or the community engagement department really being the ones that are looking to partner externally and often that’s because they’re the ones that are engaged in the kind of the diversity of audience and diversity of stakeholders. And I would challenge museums, again, to make sure that everyone in the organization understands why they’re partnering with specific communities that is not about tokenizing or extracting specific things from specific communities, but it’s actually a partnership where both parties are getting things out of it that mean something and matter to both parties.

And so I think museums should show up, they should continue to show up. Often museums don’t have the trust within communities right away to do a partnership the way that I think we’re all talking about here, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop showing up. We have to show up so we can build trust and authentic relationships that are built over time that are long lasting. And I think when we do go into communities and into other organizations to partner, being patient and making no asks at first. And I think over time, when we build relationships, we’ll be able to understand, we’ll be told what folks need and then our job is to actually see if we can make that happen and just not assuming what communities might need, I think is a really important piece to that. So I’ll stop here.

Shannon McDonough: I’m going to ask you one follow-up question. Thank you, Andrew. I feel like everything you just laid out for us also applies to how museums and other sectors who are engaging the public can think differently about older adults. It is something where often we have heard in other sectors that, “Oh, well, we’ve brought people in and they do some volunteer work for us and so therefore we’re engaging that part of the population,” but what you’re talking about is we’re not asking them for their time, we’re giving them something. Is there the beginnings of a dialogue in the DEAI realm that also includes the older adult population as a group that we can think about differently?

Andrew Plumley: Absolutely. I think there’s a couple of museums that are doing some really good work around this and actually centering elders’ voices, both to actually share more history of specific communities in which we have not heard from, or actually heard less from. And also, I think museums are a perfect place to actually create space for intergenerational conversation. And as Maura said, we’re all getting older every single day. I do think that museums should make sure that they’re centering elders’ voices in actual decision-making within museums. Often, what that actually looks like is right now, at least in many of the museums I’m working with, it looks like board seats and having conversations with older generations there, but that’s not actually using the breadth of elders within the community to actually move work forward. And so I think we just need to broaden our understanding of what elders are both within the communities and it’s not just board seats, and it’s not just within volunteer programs, but going into those communities and partnering with other creative aging and elder organizations within the community to do so.

Shannon McDonough: Thank you. And Daphne, you’ve told us a couple of stories that are about exactly this: programming that involves, includes, and really heralds the knowledge, expertise, and cultures that these older adults, participants can bring to a community. Would you share a little bit about some of these programs?

Daphne Kwok: Sure. Thank you. And just taking a little bit step further and deeper into what Andrew just mentioned about communities, especially communities of color, who often have been left out, especially in history. And so, as I mentioned in my keynote that Asian Americas are missing in history –MiH–and so many of the especially Asian America museums had done a lot of oral history, really collecting that oral history of our elders, whether it’s Japanese Americans and their internment experience, whether it’s Chinese Americans and coming over to Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco, really documenting that history so eventually we’ll hopefully get into the history books, but for now to be able to capture those oral histories, the Densho project out of Seattle has been collecting for years and years and years the Japanese American experience. I would say, in the Asian America Pacific Islander community, that probably Japanese Americans have been much more further along in documentation of their experience here in the US through very concerted efforts.

Another example, which I did mention also my keynote, is really when you talk about partnerships, at AARP I was able to partner with our AARP Texas state office, taking an advantage of an opportunity that a Chinese American dance troop from New York City was coming into Houston to perform their gold mountain dance performance. And we thought, what a great opportunity to have an outing for elders, our Asian America elders in the Houston area. So we sponsored a half day event where actually those dancers, they had really never done it before, but they did a movement class for about an hour with our elders who were seated, but with the music, the dance movement, they were led in an hour of an exercise.

And that was a tremendous way to be able to engage, be active. And then we served lunch and then those elders actually had an opportunity see an abridged version of this dance performance. And so it was held at the Asia Society in Houston, I would bet that those elders had never been to the Asia society. So hopefully that was an opportunity to introduce them to the Asia Society and hopefully they and their family were able to go afterwards as well too.

So I think that was a multi-pronged partnership opportunity to engage and bring the AAPI community into a museum and hope we continue to establish those relationships. I’ll also just mentioned that ARP in 2018 sponsored an exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York City that talked about age, disability and really try to decouple those issues through an exhibit that was held there. And so it’s these kind of opportunities that AARP also looks for, how can we be able to partner together with museums to bring the aging issue to exhibits as well too?

Shannon McDonough: Thank you. Just to gather some final thoughts before we go into the Q&A more, if there’s one thing that you would like people listening to think about as they do strategic planning in their departments, as they think about budgets, as they think about audience strategy, what do you want them to take to heart and kind of carry with them into this next year?

Maura O’Malley: Actually, I’ve been thinking since both Andrew and Daphne were speaking that I think it’s important that museums going forward are not looking at partnership as only the museums giving out something, but the communities in which museums can work and should work have enormous, enormous resources in the people who live there and the other organizations there that are there. And I think it’s really important that museums tap into those resources so that the programming that results from any kind of a partnership is actually truly responsive to the community that’s being served. So it’s not just a one way partnership, it’s not just the museum bringing services out to the community, it’s the museum connecting to the community and that benefits both.

And I think that’s another sort of aspect of, for instance, intergenerational programming, which is sort of traditionally thought of as older people telling younger kids what to do, rather it should be both multi-generational people coming together as learners where there’s an equal give and take. And so I think that that kind of partnership, true partnerships that can be sustained that are really collaborative, that really benefit both or all partners are give and take and everyone has something to contribute. So I think that’s really important to keep that in mind, especially the older adults as not just the recipients, but as actually contributors to the content and the delivery of the services.

Shannon McDonough: Thank you. Daphne, Andrew, do you have one more thing that you would really like to convey?

Daphne Kwok: Maybe I would say that in order to really engage with diverse audiences, to really be able to reach out to those third-party validators, community leaders, community organizations, and in some states, and I’ll just use the Asian American community, but I know for the African American Hispanic or LGBTQ that there are all these commissions, advisory commissions to whether it’s this mayoral or gubernatorial advisory commissions, but these are leaders, those are people that sit on those kinds of commissions are actually leaders in community, and they would be also a great starting point in order to reach into communities.

Andrew Plumley: And I’ll just wrap by saying engaging elders, engaging the full scope of our communities is really what museums should be doing because it’s fulfilling our missions, that’s why we’re here. And so this is not outside of what our scope of museums are, and it really is a DEI issue when it’s said and done.

Shannon McDonough: Thank you all so much for your time and all of your insights today.

Andrew Plumley: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.

Maura O’Malley: Thank you.

Daphne Kwok: Welcome.

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