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Museums Embrace Art Therapy Techniques For Unsettled Times

That museums are taking art therapy more seriously than ever is due in large part to a program at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts that allows physicians to prescribe free access to its galleries. The museum was also one of the first in North America to hire a full-time art therapist in 2017.

Stephen Legari, who took the job, normally sees about 1,200 participants each year, but demands for his services have increased as Montreal — the epicenter of Canada’s coronavirus outbreak — reopens. “In quarantine, you’re looking at the same things in your apartment every day,” he explained. “The repetition is grinding down your capacity to concentrate. By contrast, museums are places for wonderment, beauty and awe.”

Katerine Caron joined the art therapy program about three years ago. For much of her life, the 52-year-old writer has dealt with neurological damage and severe trauma after being hit by a speeding car while walking her children across the street. She eagerly awaits Wednesday group sessions. “I hadn’t created art since I was a child,” Ms. Caron said, “but art therapy has helped me externalize what I’m feeling and express my gratitude for life.”

For her, the therapy has created a space outside the pandemic for her to process difficult emotions. “I’m less anxious and agitated,” she said, adding, “When I see the works of other artists, I know that I’m not alone.”

When sorting through the museum’s collection for inspiration recently, Mr. Legari has shied away from contemporary works. Instead, he is drawn to images of natural beauty rendered by the Romantics and Impressionists. He also likes to incorporate more abstract works by artists like Henri Matisse and Georges Braque into his sessions.

Looking at what Montreal has accomplished, Sally Tallant, executive director of the Queens Museum, hopes that her institution can replicate that same sense of refuge for people. In the meantime, the museum’s educators are testing out a variety of initiatives. There are weekly conversations with homebound seniors about the institution’s collection, a program for caregivers to learn about art, and several live-video artmaking sessions for recent immigrants who don’t speak English, which are also offered in Mandarin.

“This is a time to consider museums as places of care,” Ms. Tallant said. “There is a need to develop porous cultural institutions that are open, inclusive and empathetic as we recover from living through a prolonged period of isolation and loss.”

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