National Guild 2019 Benchmarking Data Report: Creative Aging

“I just look out the window and see what’s visible but not yet seen.” — Peter Drucker

The National Guild for Community Arts Education (Guild) is dedicated to ensuring all people have opportunities to maximize their creative potential. But when we examined the student population of Guild member organizations in 2017, it was clear that adults 55+ were being left out. Only 8% of students were 65+ and less than 30% reported having any engagement with older adults. And virtually none of that programming was in alignment with Creative Aging’s framework of intentional integration of skills-based arts learning and social engagement. By 2030 there will be more Americans over 65 than under 18 years old: it’s not just bad business to ignore this important audience, it’s inequitable and harmful to everyone.

In response, Aroha Philanthropies and the Guild announced Catalyzing Creative Aging, a large-scale, multi-year, cross-sector partnership to build the capacity of community arts education organizations across the country to launch new Creative Aging programs. Building on previous efforts, the Guild, Aroha and program partner Lifetime Arts developed a multi-pronged approach centered on creating new programs, expanding the knowledge base, and advocating for Creative Aging in the community arts education field and beyond. For many in the community arts education field, eyes have been opened to what was there all along: the profound need for—and community benefits of—arts education and engagement for adults 55 and better. In addition, is becoming clear that building a Creative Aging movement demands ageism that is knowingly and unknowingly perpetuated by individuals, organizations, and communities.

As part of the Guild’s transformational journey to confront ageism and promote inclusion for community arts education students of all ages, we needed to dig deeper into the practice of our members. With Aroha Philanthropies’ support, the latest version of our biannual Benchmarking Data Report featured a new section dedicated to Creative Aging practice of Guild members. Key findings from responses show that Creative Aging is a growing program area for Guild members:

● 41% of members report they offer a Creative Aging program (a 37% increase from 2017!)
● 11% have offered their Creative Aging programming for less than one year
● 26% reported their program has been offered for one to three years
● Among those who do not currently offer creative aging, 23% plan to launch programming within the next 12 months.

We are delighted to see the growth of implementation of (and plans to launch) intentional skills-based arts programming for adults 55+! The twist? This report—with data collected in Winter 2020—is a snapshot of the community arts education field just before COVID-19’s arrival.

So, what does this mean for our new pandemic reality?

To find out, the Guild’s Creative Aging Member Network Steering Committee developed and launched a specific Creative Aging field survey to inform community arts educators. 116 administrators and teaching artists completed the survey in October 2020, which included questions on how Creative Aging programs have adapted since the pandemic, what challenges and successes they are experiencing, and how they are addressing racial equity and/or serving vulnerable adults 55+. Not surprisingly, a key takeaway is the tremendous need for Creative Aging programs to combat social isolation in the face of formidable challenges to engaging participants, partners, and funders. It has also opened our eyes to the possibility of integrating remote learning into the time-tested Creative Aging program model. As always, we find inspiration in the expertise and passion of our peers, as evidenced by one respondent, “Moving to a virtual environment has shown us new ways to interact with individuals in our community, as well as allowed us to move outside of our community to work with new folks. We have found that people are much more flexible with learning new technologies and new ways of interacting as learners/teachers than originally imagined. We know that some of these new methods of working together will continue beyond this pandemic.”

Ironically, our current best efforts to protect ourselves from COVID-19—self-isolation—has been identified by WHO as a “serious public health concern” for adults 55+ because of the heightened risk of cardiovascular, autoimmune, neurocognitive, and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. However, at this stage, we are all coping to some degree with physical and social isolation. COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on adults 55+ has served to underscore the value of Creative Aging for those who might have not been mindful of it before March 2020. The health crisis has presented a new opportunity to advocate with funders and cross-sector partners about the impact of Creative Aging on social isolation.

More than ever, it’s clear that ensuring access to creative expression and engagement for adults 55 and better is not just a program, it’s a matter of public health and social justice. The Guild and the broader community arts field is building a coalition to sustain and expand the Creative Aging movement with a depth and breadth of thoughtful, relevant, and innovative responses to rapidly changing conditions. Together, we will forge pathways beyond the pandemic that increase accessibility to programming while delivering the positive physical and mental health outcomes associated with Creative Aging. And we are more hopeful than ever that we will emerge stronger and more resilient on the other side of this crisis.


–This post was written by Kate Riley, Development Manager at the Guild.