Artful: Art and dementia online toolkit

I think we both surprised ourselves. I was amazed at my husband’s interactions and what he could do creatively and I learned so much, while enjoying myself at the same time.

Artful care partner

Contemporary art is a powerful starting point for people living with dementia to engage and express themselves. There is no fixed meaning within an artwork, which means the viewer can bring their own interpretation and understanding of the work, enabling an ongoing process of open discussion and curiosity about the world today.

Created from our onsite Artful: Art and dementia programme at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) in Sydney, we’ve recently launched an online educational resource for individuals living with dementia and their support networks, available internationally. It is informed by our unique approach to creative learning through contemporary art. The Artful: Art and dementia online toolkit is the first resource of its kind which offers artist-led creative activities specifically designed for individuals living with dementia.

Artful: Art & Dementia programme, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2016. Photograph: Dan Boud 

This new paid resource specifically builds upon the MCA’s ongoing Artful: Art and Dementia programme and responds to the growing need for meaningful and respectful creative resources for the healthcare and aged-care sector. It also emerges from our recent three-year pilot research project with the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney and Dementia Australia which investigated how regular art making and viewing can impact on markers of neuroplasticity and wellbeing of people living with dementia.

Where we began

The structure of the onsite Artful: Art and Dementia programme welcomes 8 individuals living with dementia along with their care partners for an intimate and multi-faceted art programme structured over a six-week period at the MCA. These small groups are supported by MCA artist educators to engage in participatory gallery experiences and take part in hands-on artmaking sessions, as well as home-based activities via an ‘Artful at home pack’.

Artful: Art & Dementia programme, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2016.

The ‘Artful at home’ packs include artmaking materials, an artwork image card, which acts as the reference point for each weekly activity, and a set of simple instructions. By providing the tools and structure, artmaking could easily be added to the participants’ home routines.

Making art is an opportunity for self-expression, an important act especially for those dealing with a loss of ability to do things for themselves; it can promote a feeling of achievement, offer hope, wonder and joy, and even a new outlook on life. In this sense, the Artful programme has been transformational for some participants.

For our pilot research project, across a 34-month period of study we involved 124 participants, from 2016 to 2018, in quantitative research undertaken by researchers at the Brain and Mind Centre, University of Sydney with the support from Dementia Australia.1 This research and subsequent learnings from the programme have helped inform MCA’s approach to ensuring that art is for everyone.

Artful: Art & Dementia programme, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2019. Photograph: Maja Baska 

Some of the key learnings from the research which has influenced our new online resource includes:

  • Care partners: Although our onsite programme began with an interest in working with people living with dementia and providing respite for care partners, we soon began to see the immense impact the programme had on the family and support networks who attended and took part. The programme has allowed for new connections to be built between the participant and their care partner, encouraging meaningful encounters that allow them to find new means of communication and to see each other for who they are outside of the disease.
  • Impacting day-to-day routines: The ‘Artful at home’ packs became a cherished resource for the participants who expressed a lack of activities and ideas for things to do at home which could be both fun and meaningful. The artmaking process triggered conversations and collaboration — not, as one person described it, the typical home routine of ‘sitting and looking at a blank screen’.
  • Play: Play is something we associate naturally with children. We forget how to play as we get older; being given permission to play is highly liberating, and sometimes even intimidating. Many people who join the Artful programme have little to no art experience. We often heard the sentence, ‘I haven’t picked up a pencil or paintbrush since I was a kid’. We saw participants who left the artmaking sessions often saying, ‘I haven’t had this much fun in years!’ We witnessed many moments of joy, laughter and camaraderie.

About the online toolkit

The Artful: Art and Dementia online toolkit is an innovative resource designed for people living with dementia at any stage in their lives, as well as their support network. It was created with the support of the Jibb Foundation and makes creative learning activities from the onsite Artful programme available to people who cannot participate in the programme at the MCA, as well as to professionals in the healthcare and aged-care sector who are looking for stimulating ways of engaging with their clients.2

Artful: Art & Dementia programme, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2019. Photograph: Maja Baska 

The toolkit is aligned with the Aged Care Quality Standards outlined by the Australian Government’s Department of Health. It can be used to facilitate creative learning experiences that offer an individual a sense of agency, build a sense of connection and increase one’s confidence. Other key benefits of using the online toolkit include providing stimulation, encouraging conversation and memory recall, and using motor skills.

The online toolkit contains ten artmaking activities, each inspired by artworks in the MCA Collection online.

Each activity has:

  • step-by-step instructions
  • an instructional video
  • warm-up questions to help start a conversation about the artwork
  • options to tailor the activity to individual needs and interests
  • tips for working in groups
  • a printable PDF version of the instruction
Artful: Art & Dementia programme, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2019. Photograph: Money

The MCA’s approach to contemporary art and learning is embedded throughout the ten artmaking activities. The language of the toolkit is warm and encouraging in tone, and the videos, led by MCA Artist Educator Clare Thackway, are personable and engaging, according dignity to people living with dementia. There is also an emphasis on the process rather than the final product in the artmaking activities: people can connect to their individual interests, activate multiple senses and be in the present moment.

The toolkit is also programmed with access in mind: it includes tips and suggestions for adapting the activities to individual needs, all videos are captioned, and the step-by-step instructions can be downloaded as PDFs. Once people have purchased the toolkit, they do not need to remember a password but can use a unique ‘web token’ (similar to a key) to return to the toolkit, and their access does not expire. We hope that individuals will return and repeat the activities they enjoyed the most with the variations suggested.

Through an online portal, this toolkit translates the warmth and intimacy of our onsite programme right to a person’s living room, so that individuals can be supported by our artist educators to engage in creative experiences.

The online toolkit is available for purchase for individuals as well as professionals/organisations, Australia-wide and internationally.

[We like] being opened up to these creative processes and its [something] that you can’t quantify. It’s like travel. You experience it, it changes you, but you can’t say in what way it’s done that.

Artful care partner

To purchase the online toolkit or to read more about our pilot research study, visit the MCA website.

Yaël Filipovic, MCA Public Engagement Manager & Flora Suen, MCA Digital Learning and Engagement Producer
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia


  1. This three-year research project was made possible by the generous support of the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation
  2. March 2020 update: Little did we know at the time that this resource would become even more important as we now face a global pandemic (COVID-19) and millions of people, especially older populations, have become increasingly isolated and in need of meaningful engagement.