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How can museums and art galleries help our understanding of mental illness?

Richard Boulet, RAGE HOPE

Nickle Galleries and Hotchkiss Brain Institute host panel Nov. 30 to explore role of cultural institutions and accommodation of disability arts

By Jennifer Sowa, Libraries and Cultural Resources

Dancer Isadora Duncan once said, “If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.”

For people with mental illnesses, art can provide a way of expressing what is often challenging to articulate: their joys and challenges, their hopes and fears. Such is the case with the exhibition Richard Boulet – R A G E H O P E, curated by Department of Art instructor Dick Averns, currently on view at Nickle Galleries in the Taylor Family Digital Library.

Both the artist and the curator are affected by mental health conditions and this features in their work, their advocacy, and — for Averns — his teaching.

“Art can yield visual interpretations of social conditions without a reliance on words,” explains Averns. “This makes art galleries and museums contemplative learning spaces that are very different than classrooms.”

Boulet says he has overcome many obstacles, including the grief that stems from learning to live with a disability.

"Life is guaranteed to have challenges and sometimes that means living with a disability. I live with my disability by embracing introspective and poetic gestures towards simple pleasures as guided by love and hope and even a faith in something larger than myself."

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, about 50 per cent of the population will have or have had a mental illness by the age of 40. Despite its prevalence, programming for audiences and opportunities for artists and arts professionals with mental and physical disabilities are lacking, yet related artworks may provide valuable insight into how museums and art galleries can better engage and serve this diverse population.

These are some of the many challenges that a special panel discussion will explore at Nickle Galleries at noon on Nov. 30. Mental Health in Museums and Art Galleries features a number of speakers including:

  • Dick Averns: Instructor, Department of Art

  • Paul Freeman: Artistic director, Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts

  • Dr. Tamara Pringsheim: Associate professor, departments of Clinical Neurosciences, Psychiatry, Pediatrics and Community Health Sciences, Cumming School of Medicine

  • Richard Boulet: Artist

The event leads up to the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Dec. 3 and coincides with the SPARK Disability Art Festival. The panel is presented in collaboration with the Cumming School of Medicine’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI), which leads the university’s Brain and Mental Health research strategy.

“Some of the most exciting art produced today encourages reflection on social issues, including those that have been swept under the carpet or considered too sensitive to discuss,” explains Michele Hardy, curator at Nickle Galleries, the University of Calgary’s art museum. “Nickle Galleries is proud to provide a forum for discussion and exploration of topics that reflect the diversity of our community.”

The panel will elaborate on histories of art and mental health as well as the content of Boulet’s quilts, textile works and drawings. Averns will provide historical examples of art appearing in mental health institutions, museums and galleries, along with an overview of disability arts and the value of art in reducing stigma and promoting mental wellness. Pringsheim will give an overview of the use of art therapies for mental health disorders.

“Evidence supports the benefit of art-based therapies on psychological and social recovery in individuals with mental health disorders,” says Pringsheim, deputy director of the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education, and a member of the HBI. “Museums and galleries can support this by providing venues to engage the community in creative activities and by featuring the work of individuals with mental health disorders.”

Mental Health in Museums and Art Galleries is part of the Nickle at Noon public lecture series that runs every Thursday during the fall and winter terms. The panel will be followed by a relaxed reception for R A G E H O P E from 2 to 4 p.m., which is ideal for individuals with sensory challenges.

Richard Boulet – R A G E H O P E runs until Dec. 16 along with Everywhere Possible Therefore True, which highlights the multimedia work of Calgary artist Miruna Dragan, and The Writing on the Wall: The Work of Joane Cardinal-Schubert, an examination of the work of the late Indigenous activist and artist.

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, Brain and Mental Health is one of six research strategies guiding the University of Calgary towards its Eyes High goals. The strategy provides a unifying direction for brain and mental health research at the university and positions researchers to unlock new discoveries and treatments for brain health in our community.

See the original article courtesy of the University of Calgary UToday here.

Image: Artist Richard Boulet in his Nickle Galleries exhibition R A G E H O P E. In the background is his work Scream Like a Shot Deer, and in the showcase is Tidal Wave. Photo by Dave Brown, Libraries and Cultural Resources

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