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Art, Wellness, and Mental Health

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
A group of people sitting in a circle photographed from above

I met Ashley Witherspoon while researching CFM’s current TrendsWatch report—one of the topics we examine is how museums can help foster mental health for all. Ashley is the founder and CEO of Hand Made Dreams, a mental health platform dedicated to “bringing mental health awareness to everyday spaces,” and I was interested to learn she has been partnering with museums to create mental health programs. Today on the blog, Megan Lantz, AAM’s Director of Social Impact, shares a conversation with Ashley and with Angela Lombardi, Director of Outreach and Audience Engagement at the North Carolina Museum of Art, which has been collaborating with Hand Made Dreams on programming. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

–Elizabeth Merritt, Vice President of Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums.

Megan Lantz: Let’s start by getting introductions from both of you.

Angela Lombardi: My name is Angela Lombardi and I serve as the Director of Outreach and Audience Engagement at the North Carolina Museum of Art. I work with a lot of college students, teens, and out in rural communities across North Carolina. And what I like to share about my story when I meet young people is that I did not come to museum work through traditional means. I came through studio art. And so I bring the mindset of an artist to creative problems. I appreciate the way that artists approach the world and the questions that they can ask and how that can kind of change the experience of museum-going.

Ashley Witherspoon: I am Ashley Witherspoon, and I am a licensed clinical social worker with a background in criminal justice. (That was my undergrad major at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.) I’m the founder of Hand Made Dreams, a mental health platform, and our latest initiative is the Art Wellness Exchange. Our goal is to utilize art to create conversations around mental wellness and reduce the stigma attached to mental health. Through the Art Wellness Exchange, we’re able to share the openness and perspective of museums with our participants and gain some gems of insight while we are in those intimate spaces. We’re excited to collaborate with museums such as the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Megan Lantz: I’m curious to hear your thoughts about working with wellness in museums specifically. What is it about them that is so helpful in doing this work in an impactful way?

Ashley Witherspoon: I think that museums, in their spaces and with the art they show, push our perspective and our thinking about how we go about our day-to-day life. And I think mental health conversations do the same.

I view art and mental health as being on a similar plane. They’re both things that people reflect on internally, but usually we’re not given a chance to share our feelings and thoughts about these internal reflections. You might see a really challenging art piece that it stuns you when you see it, but you might keep that reaction to yourself—“Ooh, I don’t know how everyone else is feeling about this.” It’s the same with mental health. Although the Art Wellness Exchange is not therapy, it provides a space for participants to acknowledge emotions and seek additional support if needed.

Angela Lombardi: At the North Carolina Museum of Art we were already exploring how museums can promote wellness before the pandemic, then we obviously had a major shift in 2020. With our museum closed and our virtual programs happening, we were trying new things. We kept coming back to the fact that people were looking to us not as a passive space anymore, but as a vital community space, where even through virtual programming, people could come together and share.

Virtual Slow Art Appreciation, facilitated by Bryanne Senor who manages our Mindful Museum series, became one of our most popular offerings. Participants spend an hour together intentionally observing one work of art. Since 2020, between 20 and 80 people join these sessions that allow for their voice and ideas to be heard while practicing mindfulness techniques focused on the piece. Often, no one wants to the program to end after an hour. People would write in saying “that was a profoundly moving experience,” or “that was so calming and such a unique way to view art.” We got to hear other people’s perspectives in a way that had been challenging for us before the pandemic. Having that virtual platform really opened us up to new ways of thinking about our space as a vital place that served people holistically.

Megan Lantz: Tell me about how the Art Wellness Exchange programs came together at the museum.

Ashley Witherspoon: When COVID came, I really wanted to take a creative leap out of the very structured system that I was working in. It was great that we were serving people, but a lot of the feedback I was receiving was, “Okay, we did this workshop, it was great. Now what?” I could tell that there was a need for a different way of meeting their mental health needs. Once Hand Made Dreams was launched, I thought about how we could sprinkle mental health awareness in different formats. The Art Wellness Exchange was one of those formats, and it’s been great.

Angela and her team went far and beyond to make sure that everyone felt comfortable, and it was a very intimate space. The programs were held after hours, so that was absolutely beautiful: the spacing, the lighting, and the quiet. At six o’clock in the evening it was almost like the gallery was reserved specifically for us.

Our initial collaboration was open to caregivers, and that included first-time parents, dads, moms who had teenagers, healthcare workers. We had geriatric populations where a wife would bring in her spouse who was diagnosed with dementia. We had all these people sitting in one room, and even though they were in different life phases, everyone came to identify with one another. I think when people bond over experiences, and specifically with art in the middle of it, it creates a conversation you could not get through social media or watching the news. You’re bringing people face-to-face together in an intimate, safe space to share these feelings.

Angela Lombardi: Before the programs, Ashley spent time with Courtney Klemens, our Manager of Family Programs, in the galleries looking at art. They were looking for pieces that had an impact in terms of commonality of experience, ones that were maybe a little messier and unresolved. For example, there’s one photograph by artist Faith Couch titled “Mother and Child” that shows a mother working at a desk with a child laying across her lap with papers everywhere, and it was like, “Oh yeah, we can all feel that.”

The pieces they chose got everyone thinking about certain things, which led to deeper conversations. Everybody needed a place to share and to be heard, and we could provide the space where that could happen. When the community comes in to have conversations like this and feels a sense of ownership over this space, our hope is that it will encourage future visits and future conversations, whether they’re spurred by art or by sitting in our lobby and having a cup of coffee. I thank Ashley for bringing the program here, because it opened our eyes to another level of possibility of that kind of healing community engagement.

Megan Lantz: I would love to hear a little bit about the origin story of the partnership between Hand Made Dreams and the museum. How did the bridge between the two organizations get built?

Ashley Witherspoon: When I launched Hand Made Dreams I was thinking about planning something like a summit, where a large group of kids and their families would come together to talk about relearning old habits. Then the pandemic hit and I was like, okay, a summit is not going to work.

I still wanted to create a space that made people feel safe but challenged at the same time. I thought maybe I’ll take a chance, reach out to the museum and see if they were interested in hosting something like that. And as it turned out, it all aligned at the perfect time, because we were all thinking, “How can we serve the community?”

Angela Lombardi: At the museum, we were striving to be open and active listeners as the community voiced its needs. We were trying to strike a balance between centering people and centering art, and didn’t want to take the approach of “sit down and we’re going to give you an art history lesson.” We wanted to jump from a point of emotional connection with a work of art to how the work resonated with the viewer on a more personal level, whatever that was. Through the Mindful Museum series our team has developed a mindset of wanting a museum visit to be a centering experience and a growth experience. This is not about teaching anybody anything. This is about exploring the other aspects of art that can bring out an emotional response that you can’t anticipate.

With museum planning, you often book things eighteen months in advance. You have your calendars set, and you don’t deviate from the plan. During the pandemic, we all learned the lesson of flexibility and fluidity. That attitude made it possible to say, “You Ashley are a valuable member of our community who’s providing this really beautiful service and you want to work with us. That would be amazing.”

Megan Lantz: Tell me about the impacts the programs have had. Did you get any sense of how engaging with the programs affected the participants?

Ashley Witherspoon: The immediate feedback was that people were very surprised the museum was having a program like this. But they were also grateful to the museum for creating this space and allowing this work to happen.

At the beginning of these programs, we have people come in and sit down. Then we go into the gallery to survey an art piece. During this time people are able to  provide reflections as it relates to the topic (i.e. self-care, burnout). Then we walk to another area and talk about different leading questions. I’m big on where we came from, where we are, and where we’re going, so, some of these questions were, “Tell me a little bit about your family’s views around self-care.” “Who was your caregiver? How did they display care for themselves?” “How are you caring for yourself now and as a caregiver, how do you instill those practices in who you care for?” There was a lot of work one on one, but also in groups of two or three. I ask them to turn to their neighbor and have conversations. Additional community resources are provided at the conclusion of the experience for those who would like to move forward with mental health support.

Afterwards, I had people emailing me asking when we were doing it again and talking about different topics that they wanted to focus on. I was overwhelmed by hearing people’s thoughts and feelings about how they were connecting with one another.

Megan Lantz: Angela, any reflections on this work?

Angela Lombardi: I can echo what Ashley said. People reach out and say “Thank you for having this type of program at the museum.” Her focus on caretakers brought people out of their isolation. It has informed a lot of what we’re doing in the coming year for families, college students, teens, and people with various levels of disability and need for accommodations. Fundamentally it awakened us to a lot of things we need to be doing. And the positive response has made it possible to get the support to continue doing so.

Megan Lantz:  Angela, any tips or advice for other museums about how they could be successful in a partnership like this?

Angela Lombardi: I would say number one, get outta your museum. Be in your community, talk to people. Listen to people. You’re going to understand where the needs are much more than sitting in your programming office trying to anticipate. There’s such a focus now on self-care and wellness now that people will understand what you’re trying to accomplish. There is a stigma that surrounds conversations about mental health and seeking help, but programming like this frees participants from some of that stigma, because they have the remove of using art to start talking, not beginning with themselves or their concerns. People can come into this public space and know we have worked to make it as safe a space for sharing as possible.

When you’re watching people’s faces as they’re sitting in a circle and they’re moved by art to discover all these other things inside of themselves, it’s really hard to ever go back. I would just say make the intentional decision to care about the well-being of your community.

Megan Lantz: Ashley, any advice for others looking to engage in this type of work and partner this way?

Ashley Witherspoon: I think that it’s important for us to start being proactive about mental health, especially in light of current events. We have an opportunity to change that narrative, as mental health clinicians in particular. We don’t have to come in during the aftermath or in the middle of a crisis in our community or family. Stepping outside of the clinics and outpatient centers and inpatient centers into the everyday community, we can start to plant those seeds for people early on.

I’m really invested in collaborating with other organizations—collaboration saves lives. It’s okay to step out of your comfort zone as a clinician, reach around the corner, grab hands and say, “Hey, we all need each other here.” So, my advice to other clinicians is to step out of your comfort zones, collaborate, think of mental wellness in another way to address mental health, outside the traditional one-on-one therapy session. However, I would like to acknowledge that my colleagues are doing wonderful work as well and I am happy for the mentors and encouragement I have received along the way.  I am also thankful for various organizations who have welcomed us and the expertise we have.

Megan Lantz: What’s next with this initiative?

Ashley Witherspoon: We are going to be focusing on university students. A lot of our students haven’t been in the classroom face-to-face in the last couple of years. We are going to concentrate on their emotional intelligence and how they can relate to others as they embark on their journey of independence.

Angela Lombardi: I’m so excited about it. I’ve been working with college students, asking them what they need and what they would like to see, and with college wellness offices. During the pandemic some schools set aside a mental health day, and lot of students were coming to the museum to just take deep breaths and be in the space. I worked with some students who developed what they called the “chill sesh.” It’s like a self-guided tour that they can access on their phones with a playlist created by one student. You might go into the ancient Greek gallery, put on your headphones, and listen to ancient Greek music. And then you have a sensory thought about, you know, what would it feel like to have your hands in that clay as you made this pot? It’s super low-fi—just being with yourself and in that space. By creating a space that grounded in mindfulness, inviting people to come in and experience it themselves, I think we can welcome students who might not have come to college thinking, “The art museum is where I go to find peace of mind.”

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  1. Thanks for showcasing this really great program model. It’s unclear who is leading the program – the museum educator or the mental health professional? Or do they co-teach?

  2. Hi Claudia,

    Great question! The mental health professional facilitates the program, however the museum educator provides information regarding the art selection and remains available throughout the experience for additional questions. This is truly a wonderful collaboration!

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