Image shown: Azure at St Gabriel's: Installation image of Barrie Cooke

Image shown: Azure at St Gabriel's: Installation image of Barrie Cooke

‘Elk Study

‘Elk Study

’ Print on paper 59 x 52cm 1980. Image courtesy of Butler Gallery.

’ Print on paper 59 x 52cm 1980. Image courtesy of Butler Gallery.

Image shown: Azure at Butler Gallery. Photo credit: Ailis Feehan.

Image shown: Azure at Butler Gallery. Photo credit: Ailis Feehan.

Image shown: Azure at St Gabriel’s: Installation image of Sir John Lavery

Image shown: Azure at St Gabriel’s: Installation image of Sir John Lavery


  • To increase access to meaningful, cultural engagement for people living with dementia
  • To explore how Butler Gallery could best facilitate Azure programming off-site, for people who may be unable to access the Gallery
  • To extend Butler Gallery’s Azure programming to include people living with more advanced dementia.


Azure began in 2012, when the Azure Partnership piloted a series of exhibition-based discussion programmes at Butler Gallery, based on the Museum of Modern Art New York’s Meet Me programme. This pilot was evaluated positively by Age & Opportunity and Butler Gallery has been running Azure programming during the Gallery’s temporary exhibitions since then.

Using MoMA’s Meet Me model as a template, Azure invites participation from people living with dementia and their carers/families by engaging them in conversation around a work of art. This facilitation method takes a four-step approach: Observation, allowing enough time for each participant to take a visual inventory of the work; Description, establishing a fundamental understanding of what is being seen; Interpretation, assigning meaning and thinking about overall significance and encouraging a wide breadth of interpretation; and Connection, an opportunity for participants to connect the work with their own life experiences.

All participants are encouraged to participate on a level playing field, with the emphasis placed on participants’ abilities rather than on what is no longer possible given their dementia.

Until 2014, Azure programming has taken place on-site in Butler Gallery, during its programme of contemporary art exhibitions.

Azure at St Gabriel’s, however, took Azure off-site, into St Gabriel’s Ward at St Canice’s Hospital, Kilkenny, a residential and assessment environment for people living with dementia. The programme took place over three weeks. Each week, a themed selection of work from Butler Gallery’s Permanent Collection was transported by an art handler to a day room in St Gabriel’s. Butler Gallery aimed to recreate the atmosphere of an exhibition, removing existing paintings/photographs from walls where possible, taking down curtains that were visually distracting and removing unnecessary furniture to enable participants to move around the room easily.

Given the location of the programme, in a day room that was not frequently used, residents themselves could choose if they wished to participate or not. Residents were given the option of engaging as part of a small group, or individually, one-on-one with the faciltator.  In the case of residents who were non-verbal, individual visits allowed for more focused attention, allowing for these residents to respond in their own time.

Four to six different works were exhibited each week, encompassing a variety of media including drawing, painting, print and sculpture. The length of time spent differed with each resident depending on their preference and ability. When facilitating residents in groups, group size was kept small – a maximum of five to six people – to best enable the facilitator to include all participants in the discussion.

Azure at St Gabriel’s was facilitated by Bairbre-Ann Harkin, Butler Gallery Education Curator. The programme included work by the following artists: Brian Bourke, Barrie Cooke, Gerard Dillon, Carmel Flynn, May Guinness, Evie Hone, Mainie Jellett, Nevan Lahart, Sir John Lavery and Donal O’Drisceoil.

Artistic Outputs

There were no artistic outputs from this pilot programme. However, following the successful completion of this first encounter, Butler Gallery and St Gabriel’s are keen to continue working together into 2015. Both parties wish to explore other methods of engagement and have discussed complimenting Azure faciliatation by using the TimeSlips™ method of creative storytelling as another way of engaging with the Butler Gallery’s Collection.

Evaluation Methodology

  • Each programme was followed by an immediate debrief between the facilitator and occupational therapy staff to discuss what they thought had been successful, evaluating which artworks and facilitation methods had proven most engaging and what could be changed or improved for the next programme. This debrief also evaluated logistical elements including the positioning of work, lighting and access to and around the room.
  • The facilitator took detailed notes after each programme, reflecting on participants’ responses to each work and taking note of which methods of facilitation had been most effective in encouraging responses, both verbal and non-verbal.
  • Occupational therapy staff completed a report profiling each participant and documenting their level of engagement during the programme and any impact/response after the programme had ended. Participation was evaluated by close observation of participants’ behaviour during the programme, including eye contact, body language, verbal responses, agitation etc. Staff also spoke to participants following the programme to ascertain whether they would like to attend again and whether they had enjoyed the experience. This report was circulated only to project partners and the staff of St Gabriel’s Ward and is not publicly available.

Evaluation Outcomes

The feedback from St Gabriel’s staff, residents and their families was extremely positive. As a result, Butler Gallery and St Gabriel’s have agreed to continue working together in 2015. In evaluating this pilot phase, there were many learnings which will be considered when planning and facilitating future programming. For example:

  • A flexible approach to facilitation is key. Unforeseen circumstances often resulted in participants who had planned to attend being unable to. On certain days, participants who had previously been enthusiastic to participate in the group discussion favoured one-on-one facilitation. It was essential for the facilitator to be able to engage with each participant as they presented on the day, actively responding to their individual needs and preferences.
  • Small group size is preferable to ensure that everyone can see the work properly, but also so that the facilitator can encourage participation from all.
  • Planning the logistical side of the programme should not be underestimated. Small details of room set up can positively and negatively impact on participants’ experience. For example, minimizing exterior noise to assist participants to focus their attention in the room; ensuring lighting in the room is bright enough to enable people to view the work, whilst remaining aware of glare which might prevent participants from seeing the work properly. Seating should be comfortable, participants should be able to move freely about the room and enough staff should be present in order to assist participants who wish to leave.
  • Building a strong collaborative relationship between Butler Gallery and St Gabriel’s occupational therapy staff was essential. The OT staff know the residents and their individual needs and they can share necessary information with the facilitator to enable her to best facilitate the experience.

The report compiled by the OT staff highlighted a number of positive outcomes (names have been changed):

  • Participants were reported to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere created, one participant commenting that the group discussions were ‘great craic altogether.’
  • Medical staff who were not involved in the programme commented that ‘the interest some very unwell patients had in the artwork was very positive.’
  • The consultant to St Gabriel’s noted that ‘some patients I wouldn’t have thought would be interested were in fact quite involved.’
  • Beth, an 81 year old non-verbal participant who engaged with the work on a one-to-one basis, displayed interest in certain works by holding her gaze, gesturing to the work and maintaining eye contact with the facilitator.
  • Josie, an 80-year old participant, responded emotionally to certain works, commenting during a discussion of May Guinness’s Landscape that ‘the vibrant colours enraptured her.’ She became very interested in learning more about the artists, asking questions.
  • Ann, an 85-year old participant, who is described as rarely initiating conversation, participated regularly in group discussion, often connecting the work to experiences in her own life.

Documentation and Dissemination

This project could not be documented using photography, as it was not possible to gain consent from all necessary parties. Having deemed this pilot to be a success, it may be possible to revisit this for future engagement between Butler Gallery and St Gabriel’s.

Butler Gallery presented this project at A Piu Voci in November 2014, an international conference organised by Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, that explored innovative arts programming for people living with dementia. This conference also included presentations of projects from Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the USA.


Noreen Barry, Occupational Therapist, St Gabriel’s Ward
The Azure Partners include: The Alzheimer Society of Ireland, Age & Opportunity, Butler Gallery and the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

Project dates

October – November 2014

Lead organisation

Butler Gallery

Funded By

IPB Insurance Youth and Community Fund, The Arts Council


Traditional Arts, Visual Arts

Healthcare context(s)

Acute Hospitals, Mental Health, Older People, People living with dementia

Nature of project

Collaborative/ participatory, Exhibition




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