Armchair Azure zoom session

Helen O’Donoghue and Bairbre-Ann Harkin

Providing inclusive art experiences for older people within and outside of the museum walls is integral to the Irish Museum of Modern Art’s Engagement & Learning Programme. Helen O’Donoghue, Senior Curator, Head of Engagement & Learning, and Bairbre-Ann Harkin, Curator, Art & Ageing, reflect on the development of remotely accessible art programmes for older audiences during the pandemic, spearheading initiatives that speak to people’s needs in a changing world, and how IMMA aims to be a Museum of Sanctuary for all.

On February 29th 2020, I returned home to Ireland having completed a four and a half month Fulbright scholarship at MoMA in New York, where I had a wonderful immersion in both their ongoing programmes and in their archives. I was fired up to create similar exchanges of knowledge between colleagues in IMMA and MoMA. However, that was not to come to pass as the global pandemic hit and attention turned to troubleshooting how we as colleagues at IMMA would best maintain our connections across all of the individuals and groups that participate in our programmes. We of course, drew on the experiences of our international colleagues via Zoom and shared strategies with them at virtual meetings.

IMMA’s Engagement and Learning Department has been committed to developing programming for older audiences since its establishment in 1991, providing accessible art experiences for older people within the museum, in their local communities and in residential settings. When IMMA closed to the public at the outset of the pandemic, Bairbre-Ann Harkin and I brainstormed on how to create remotely accessible programmes for and with people engaging with IMMA’s Art & Ageing programmes. We began by reviewing our programming goals and values, which had been agreed by the programming team in 2018/19. This proved a good place to start, focusing our attention on what we hoped to achieve through these programmes and what our ‘non-negotiables’ were. We aimed to provide accessible, stimulating, interactive contemporary arts experiences for our participants in a fun and sociable environment, where all are encouraged to participate equally.

Our agreed programming values provided that programmes should:

  • Champion the social model of disability
  • Respect all participants
  • Respect integrity of the artwork and the artist’s intention
  • Be facilitated by appropriately trained facilitators
  • Be fun, social experiences in a supportive environment
  • Be non-hierarchical
  • Be non-commercial
  • Encourage active participation by all

With funding from the Creative Ireland Programme, IMMA established a new art programme that older people could access in their homes and in care settings. We wanted to ensure that we provided a range of experiences for participants, so that they could choose whatever would work best for them, given their circumstances at the time. Armchair Azure and Talking Art Online, our Zoom programmes, encouraged active discussion of artworks from IMMA’s Collection, keeping numbers small to ensure that participants could comfortably take part in the conversation. Printed PDF ‘Talking Art’ resources were distributed to people who preferred not to engage online. These packs invited participants to consider one artwork in detail and through a series of prompts, interpret and connect with the work alone or with friends.

IMMA Armchair Azure zoom session: participants explore an artwork by photographer Perry Ogden from his series Connemara portraits (1992).

Bairbre-Ann also developed a video series titled Slow Art, with IMMA’s Visitor Engagement Team, where viewers were taken on a virtual visit to IMMA, exploring work from IMMA’s Collection both in the galleries and grounds, at a relaxed, slow, pace. It’s not possible to converse with a video, of course, but the videos encouraged active participation by taking a discursive approach, building an engaging script around each piece, where open questions were asked to prompt the viewers’ curiosity about each work.

Slowing down and making space for art and conversation was at the heart of all of our Art & Ageing programming at this time. Online delivery enabled us to reach and connect with people from all over the country, even some outside of Ireland. It also gave access to IMMA to those who, for reasons of illness or personal circumstance, couldn’t travel to the museum itself. We have learned a lot from this experience. We continue to offer a hybrid of online and in-person programming at IMMA in order to open up greater access to our Collection, exhibitions and conversations. If you would like to read more about IMMA’s Art & Ageing programmes during this period, please take a look at the report compiled by Quality Matters and funded by Creative Ireland.

Successful partnerships with key stakeholder organisations were crucial in reaching our intended audience. Partnerships fostered over many years, with the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, Age & Opportunity and the Mercer’s Institute for Successful Ageing in St James’s Hospital, through its Creative Life pillar, all helped publicise these new programming initiatives and offered support to participants in accessing them, where necessary. Each of these partnerships continue to offer rich opportunities to connect with new participants in different ways. The strength of our five-year long collaboration with MISA, through Creative Life, means that we are in a position to expand upon our existing programming of social prescription, develop innovative initiatives together to combat staff burn-out and investigate the potential for IMMA to contribute to MISA staff training in 2022/23. IMMA’s Slow Art resources have become a key offering in the soon to be launched ASI Online Activity Hub for people living with dementia, built in collaboration with Fujitsu. IMMA continues to work with Age & Opportunity in areas of both policy-building and practice.

During the past two and a half years we have seen how museums across the world have pivoted and adapted their programming to accommodate people whose needs have changed dramatically. IMMA’s focus on our outdoors programme has folded in concerns relating to climate change and biodiversity, and is reflected in the curatorial themes in the galleries, most especially in Chapter Two/The Anthropocene of the Narrow Gate of the Here and Now, our current exhibition drawn from IMMA’s Collection. We have always been aware of the healing process associated with experiencing and making art and the transformative possibilities of powerful and considered art education. Our partners are vital to IMMA creating programmes that speak to people’s needs.

Being immersed as I was in the MoMA Education archives, I had access to how historically that museum responded to moments of national and international trauma through programming initiatives in their education department. Currently museums worldwide are reconsidering their role in society as we face a very changed world and are aware of its fragilities. IMMA’s ambition is to be seen and experienced by people as a Museum of Sanctuary where the grounds, the galleries and the studios are places where people can connect with their inner selves and with others in a safe and healing environment.


HELEN O’DONOGHUE is Senior Curator, Head of Engagement & Learning at the Irish Museum of Modern Art since 1991, where she has developed a multi-faceted programme for IMMA’s audiences, across all ages in formal and informal education, with communities of interest and the general public. Initially trained in Fine Art and working on experimental socially engaged arts projects for a decade before joining IMMA, she adopted a pioneering approach to breaking new ground in creating people-centred access programmes to the museum.

Helen has published articles on her field of research across art education, museum studies and artist/educator collaborations. She is committed to socially engaged practices and critical pedagogy both of which inform her curatorial work and writing. Helen was a Fulbright Scholar at MoMA in 2019/ 2020 and is currently an Ambassador for Creative Professionals. Recently Helen has been officially appointed as “EPALE Adult Learning Expert”, contributing to EPALE the Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe ( content production and editorial strategy.

BAIRBRE-ANN HARKIN is an art-educator with a particular interest in accessible programming, who facilitates art-looking tours, trainings and workshops for organisations nationally and internationally. Harkin became IMMA’s Curator of Art & Ageing in 2020, after completing a two-year active-research Fellowship in IMMA’s dementia-inclusive programming. Prior to this, she spent six years as Butler Gallery’s Education Curator, where she established one of Ireland’s first dementia-inclusive art-looking programmes and developed and delivered arts education programmes for audiences of all ages and backgrounds. During this time, she became a founding partner of the European Project ‘Museums, Art & Alzheimer’s’ and the national Azure Network, alongside the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, Age & Opportunity and IMMA.


Sign up to our e-bulletin to keep up to date with the latest news and opportunities.