Art and identity


Andrew Newman, Newcastle University


  • Chris Whitehead, Newcastle University

  • Anna Goulding, Newcastle University

Partners and collaborators

  • Arts Council England, Equal Arts (a charity facilitating access to the arts for older people)

  • Age Concern Gateshead

  • BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

  • Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art

  • Gateshead Older People's Assembly

  • The Institute for Ageing and Health, Newcastle University

Management team and advisory committee

  • Anni Oskala, Arts Council England

  • Alice Thwaite, Equal Arts, Gateshead

  • Anne Marshall, Age Concern, Gateshead

  • Alistair Robinson, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland

  • Emma Thomas, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

  • Esther Ward, Gateshead Older People's Assembly

  • Louise Robinson, Institute for Ageing and Health, Newcastle University

  • Lynne Corner, Institute for Ageing and Health, Newcastle University


Andrew Newman


Older people are the focus of this project as research carried out for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has demonstrated that engagement with the arts declines in the 64+ age group.

The research is a development of an exploratory study (funded by Arts Council England and Channel Five) undertaken by the applicants which looked at older people's responses to the British Art Show 6. This suggested how responses, both positive and negative, allowed them to take control over how they were perceived by others and so distinguish themselves in various ways. This appeared, in the preliminary study, to contribute to their perceptions of wellness.

The project lasted for 25 months. The methodology involved ten data collection points over 21 months and looked at the responses of those who engage with contemporary art and those who do not.

Data collection involved interviews, focus groups and observations. The results of the research fed into policy being developed by Arts Council England on quality of provision and into improved services for older people developed by museums, galleries and care agencies. Furthermore, this increased our understanding of the consumption of the visual arts.

Aims and objectives

The aims of the project were:

  • to explore the relationships between older people’s engagement with contemporary visual art, identity construction and sense of wellbeing

  • to determine how contemporary visual art is consumed as content for identity construction practices by older people

  • to determine the relationship between the abilities and resources that potentialise wellbeing and the social and intellectual opportunities provided by engagement with the contemporary art gallery

  • to identify individual, behavioural and social factors (which lead to inequality of opportunity) that determine the nature of older people’s engagement with contemporary visual art

The project responded to issues which are central to the NDA programme, namely to identify

  • determinates that influence whether older people are included or excluded from community and civic life with regard to participation in the arts

  • individual and behavioural factors which determine decisions to engage in such activities and how these change over-time

  • the effects of personal history, support networks and cultural differences on perceptions of, and attitudes towards, autonomy and ability to maintain independence


The project outputs included:

  • Reports to partners - Arts Council England, Equal Arts, Age Concern, BALTIC, NGCA

  • Conference papers - Museums Association, Engage, American Association of Museums

  • Publication in peer reviewed journals International Journal for Heritage Studies, Cultural Trends, International Journal for Cultural Studies - Trade journals such as Museums Journal

  • Disseminate results - seminar at end of project/website - populated by results/data-sets


The project outcomes were:

  • A greater understanding of the role of culture within the lives of older people.

  • Improved services for older people within the art gallery/museum/heritage sector.

  • Improved understanding of the needs of older people by art gallery/museum/heritage practitioners and policy makers.

Policy implications

The project had a range of policy impacts, and intended to feed strongly into the art, museum and gallery sector.

Key policy and practice implications of the research

  • The results of the research fed into policy being developed by Arts Council England (ACE) on quality of provision into improved services for older people developed by galleries.

  • Suggestions for service-providers for older people in relation to arts-related activities (in terms of quality of provision). Especially relevant for Equal Arts.

  • Improving wellbeing amongst older people who are excluded from community and civic life by promoting arts-related activities for targeted groups (For example, lower rates of engagement have been identified among: men; those with a limiting disability; those suffering from illness; people from minority ethnic backgrounds; those in lower socio-economic groups; and people living alone.

  • Provide evidence for partner art galleries about motivations of older visitors, especially the mechanisms that affect visiting patterns, sustain them, and indeed obstruct them

  • Attempt to identify the mechanisms through which culture operates within society.

Key non-academic user groups that were targeted

User groups that were targeted included:

  • Arts policy makers (Arts Council England)

  • Older people in sheltered accommodation units

  • Art gallery/museum practitioners

  • Charities and other organisations representing older people, both living in the community and in sheltered accommodation units, eg, other groups with a similar role to our partners Age Concern Gateshead and Equal Arts


Assistance was needed from the NDA programme in targeting:

  • A high corporate and political profile for the overall NDA programme to maximise impact of the project.

  • Targeted press releases and promotion of findings to a wide range of non-user groups.

  • Facilitation of contacts with non-academic user groups such as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

  • Advertisement of workshop (for arts policy makers, those providing services for older people, such as museum and gallery practitioners, the voluntary sector and medical practitioners) at the end of the project.