arts and health dementia Exhibitions

What do viewers say about contemporary art made by people with dementia?

On August 14th The Dukes theatre, Lancaster, hosted the preview of Dementia and Imagination: Making Connections Through Contemporary Art. Members of the public including people living with dementia, artist practitioners, local councillors and university academics gathered in the gallery and participated in a Q&A about the research and its impacts.

Aiming to engage both public and academic audiences in thinking about dementia and the arts, the Dementia and Imagination team has toured installations to UK festivals such as Eisteddfod and Green Man, Wales. Our methods and findings have reached conferences across the UK, and to places further afield such as Budapest, Darwin Australia, and New York.

Public Feedback: What Do People Say?

A major theme of viewers’ feedback from the exhibition is that the work complicates the concept of what dementia is, which most people interpret as a positive thing. In a digital age where the media conveys often stale, repetitive and stereotypical views of people living with dementia, the opportunity to present more nuanced and personal insights into the experience was welcomed.

Like Tagdh Devlin’s work in collaboration with people living with dementia, as part of Liverpool Tate’s Culture Shifts programme, the exhibition explodes myths and expectations. Using art as an educational tool can help illustrate how dementia affects wider perceptions beyond the well-documented memory loss – and show the more hopeful stories behind ‘symptoms.’

The Public’s Imagination of Dementia

The exhibition features a range of materials and techniques, and images of work made during two-hour sessions led by professional artists from Nottingham Contemporary. Each image is accompanied by a description, quote or story taken from the content of research interviews with patients, their families and healthcare staff from Derbyshire Community Health Services.

As part of the exhibition, viewers are invited to provide their responses in a survey. I also enjoy talking to people in the gallery about their experience there. I’ve noticed that the images which draw many comments are ‘Printed Image’ and ‘Carved Sculpture.’

Carved Sculpture.jpeg

Carved Sculpture commonly attracts the opinion that the piece could easily sit in a modern art gallery. Indeed, the artist herself said “I look at it and think, it’s quite good really. I laugh and think, am not useless after all!”

Block Print

The second image depicts the repeat pattern of a block-printed house. The caption explains that on the day this was made, the artist had moved into permanent residential care but had no conscious recollection of this. While all around her participants created images using letters and numbers, she chose to draw a house. I remember this session well, for the healthcare staff found it remarkable that the woman appeared to recall and communicate something via her art, which she had previously been unable to describe.

We have found that this image causes people to question their assumptions about people can and cannot remember and conclude, for example “it’s been a real eye opener for me. Even when people might not say much, there is obviously a lot still going on for them.”

Another frequent comment is that the achievements and skills apparent “just go to show what people can do when you think they can’t do anything.”

Arts as Education

We have a huge responsibility to help improve the well-being, quality of life and sense of belonging for those who live with a dementia. By taking steps to better understand and respond to their needs and wishes, this responsibility can be met.

The media also have an important role to play in challenging stigma and connecting communities. The Dukes were thrilled with the “gift” of the exhibition and a well-attended preview, and we are grateful that the participants’ artworks are available to stimulate and inspire.

Copy of Dukes Invitation

Read about the previous D&I exhibition in Derbyshire on the Dementia and Imagination website.

A Life More Ordinary

The Dukes theatre run a well-established programme, A Life More Ordinary (ALMO), which provides a range of activities for people with dementia to attend, including film screenings, writing workshops and dance classes. The Dukes is a natural and fitting home for the second showing of the exhibition.


As a result of the Dementia and Imagination sessions with Nottingham Contemporary artists, we produced a handbook aimed at anyone who works using arts-based interventions with people with dementia. The yellow book is freely downloadable here.


You can access the study protocol in the British Medical Journal Open Access

Read more about Nottingham Contemporary’s work with older people and those with dementia, including a video about their work

Creative Health Report: Published in July by the All Party Parliamentary Arts and Health Wellbeing Group

More dementia and arts resources from the Social Care Institute for Excellence

and The Baring Foundation Creative Report, a partnership with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust

I'm a British clinical psychologist with a research background. I manage the Greater Manchester i-THRIVE Arts, Culture and Mental Health Programme, part of the national transformation of children's services. I also have an NHS clinical role in Lancaster and Morecambe working with children, young people and families (CAMHS). I began this blog in 2017 to record a WCMT Travelling Fellowship, from a research role at Arts for Health, Manchester Metropolitan University. I began clinical psychology training (DCLinPsy, Lancaster) in 2010, and studied the role of creativity in bipolar disorder, because of the known links, and partly due to my own experiences of creatively managing extremes of mood in adolescence and throughout my 20s. I have worked in several university psychology research departments including Manchester University in suicide prevention, the Spectrum Centre for Mental Health Research at Lancaster University (notable for service user expertise), and on the Dementia & Imagination research programme.

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