Older Americans Rarely Have Access to Arts Education. This Funder is Working to Change That


In the early 2010s, Minneapolis-based philanthropist Ellen Michelson found herself at a charitable crossroads. As the founder and president of the arts education funder E.A. Michelson Philanthropy, she was looking for “something that I could really dig my teeth into” and “put a stamp on my own philanthropic giving.”

Around the same time, Michelson, then 55, saw a Grantmakers in the Arts presentation on “creative aging,” which can involve providing arts programming to individuals with dementia and/or residents of long-term care facilities, or offering hands-on integrative arts workshops to individuals 55 and over.

The latter approach resonated with the longtime arts education advocate. “It was an immediate personal and emotional reaction,” Michelson told me. She also discovered that the field was woefully underfunded. “I thought, ‘Why are older adults not being given an opportunity to have a strong, quality arts education?’” Michelson decided “this is where I want to devote the next 10 years of my giving.’”

E. A. Michelson Philanthropy provides arts funding for youth and mental health, but the majority of its support is for creative aging through its Vitality Arts program, which funds museums and arts education organizations providing individuals “55 and better” with multi-session, skills-based arts workshops. In mid-January, the funder awarded $3 million in new grants to 16 art museums across the country through its Vitality Arts Project for Art Museums.

In a few years, Americans older than 65 will outnumber those younger than 18 for the first time, and some of these individuals will remain healthy and independent into their 80s. For Michelson, this demographic is worthy of philanthropic support, especially when the adverse health effects of ageism are becoming increasingly evident.

“Creative aging is actually not difficult to do, and not difficult to do well,” Michelson said. Her goal is “getting funders and arts education organizations to understand that this older population deserves to have the attention, and right now, I just don’t think they’re getting it.”

The foundation at a glance

The roots of E.A. Michelson Philanthropy date back to 1993, when it was originally the Michelson Foundation. In 2012, its name was changed to Aroha Philanthropies. In 2014, Michelson took over the foundation, and eight years later, changed the name to E.A. Michelson Philanthropy.

The foundation supports arts education organizations across three audience-specific programs — Discovery Arts (children and youth), Humanity Arts (adults with mental illness), and Vitality Arts (adults 55 and over).

The foundation has disbursed more than $51 million in total funding since 2006. Since 2013, it has moved approximately $21 million toward creative aging advocacy, training and programs. More than 50 organizations — including museums, senior living facilities, senior centers, and community arts nonprofits — have received grants for creative aging work.

In addition to direct funding of programs at museums and other organizations, the foundation has given partnership grants to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, the National Guild for Community Arts Education and American Alliance of Museums (AAM), and funded a survey to expand the research and understanding of the interests and needs of people 55 and older.

An underfunded field

At first glance, arts philanthropists familiar with the health benefits of arts education and the growing toll of social isolation should jump at the opportunity to support programs geared toward individuals aged 55 and older. When done right, workshops happen sequentially, allowing participants to build friendships and skills over time. Funding also enables museums to engage adults 65 and older, of whom only 15% visit a museum at least once a year, and pays the working artists who teach the workshops.

It’s a compelling pitch, but the idea hasn’t caught on just yet. Michelson cited an American Alliance of Museums study, which found that of the $2 billion in donations earmarked for museum education annually, 75% goes to individuals under 18. Much of the remaining 25% flows to important programs for adults with special needs.

Readers attuned to the cross-currents of arts giving won’t be surprised by this statistic. Setting aside the dominant source of funding in the visual arts space — affluent “top of the pyramid” donors with a penchant for ambitious capital projects — arts education funders, much like their peers in the broader education space, prefer to support organizations focused on engaging children and teenagers. The idea here is to engage kids while they’re young so they can reap the developmental and social benefits of an arts education.

Confronting ageism

There are legitimate reasons why funders may be reluctant to support programs serving healthy 60-year-olds, but Michelson believes we also need to confront the elephant in the room. “Philanthropy does amazing good, but I just have always believed that older people are not respected,” Michelson said. “I think our country is an ageist country.”

This may sound like a harsh assessment, but there’s a growing body of evidence attesting to widespread ageism in society. Older Americans are frequently portrayed in the media as befuddled, inept, hopelessly out of touch, and, if we follow this skewed logic to its conclusion, somehow less deserving of philanthropic dollars.

While funders may not consciously think this way, the data does point to a vast funding disparity. In a recent piece looking at philanthropy’s tepid support for older Americans, my colleague Wendy Paris noted that less than 2% of philanthropic dollars go toward traditional aging programs and services. “Aging,” Paris wrote, “has long been the neglected stepchild of philanthropy.”

Michelson believes funders “need to look inward at themselves and ask, ‘Are we being ageist in our philanthropic dollars? Just ask the question. They may very well not be. But I think it’s important to ask how ageist we are as individuals, and how that affects how we move through our world.”

Michelson recalled a disturbing conversation that Executive Director Teresa Bonner had with a program officer at another foundation that will remain nameless. As Michelson tells it, Bonner sat down with the officer and methodically walked through the principles of creative aging and her organization’s work. “And this person turned to her and said, ‘Why would we want to fund old people? They’re just going to die.’” Michelson said. “That just says it all.”

Of course, this was an isolated conversation, but in a way, it pointed to a zero-sum-game mentality among some funders in which one dollar for creative aging was one less dollar for the environment, healthcare or education. Having advocated for creative aging for over 20 years, Michelson acknowledges this tension. Nonetheless, she’s hopeful that “there will be funders out there who are willing to expand their giving, or they’re getting into philanthropy, and they start to look at the older population as valuable and worth their effort.”

How the Vitality Arts program has evolved

In 2013, Michelson hired Bonner as a consultant to oversee the foundation’s creative aging work. A year later, the foundation began hosting advocacy convenings to introduce the field of creative aging to a broader audience.

Michelson soon realized she needed a “proof of concept” if other funders were going to get behind the idea. This meant bankrolling creative aging workshops in a more structured way, and who better to partner with than art museums?

“I thought, obviously, that art museums already have education departments and they already have teaching artists that teach this work, but they just don’t seem to be teaching it to older adults,” Michelson said. “It seemed like a no-brainer to go to these museums and explain the importance of this work.”

First, Michelson had to decide which museums to approach. She began working with museum consultants András Szántó and Brian Kennedy, who advised on the design and development of the initiative. “I realized that sometimes, you’ve got to do it from the top down, and the top of art museums are the directors and the trustees,” Michelson said. “I needed people who could help me get in front of them, and András and Brian were my connectors.” The pair continues to advise Michelson on the Vitality Arts Project for Art Museums.

In 2016, the foundation announced its first cohort of 20 organizations, dubbed Seeding Vitality Arts U.S. A year later, it announced a cohort of Minnesota-based institutions, called Seeding Vitality Arts MN. It then partnered with the AAM for a third cohort of member museums. The foundation’s fourth cohort is in partnership with 25 member museums of the Association of Art Museum Directors, consisting of nine museums awarded grants in July 2022, plus the 16 museums included in the mid-January grant announcement.

Museums receive assistance in program design and implementation from E.A. Michelson Philanthropy’s long-term partner, the New Rochelle, New York-based Lifetime Arts, which Michelson calls “the leading nonprofit in America that’s involved with creative aging training and consultation.”

“A population that funders can be serving”

Michelson said that one finding from this process so far was discovering that in some cases, grantees had difficulty in making the case to would-be partners at senior housing facilities and senior centers who had never provided residents with creative aging programming.

“Many were used to bringing in a piano player or a singer, which is great, but didn’t have the bandwidth for quality sequential arts learning,” Michelson said. “Once they learned it, they loved it — but it was difficult.”

Looking ahead, in the fall of 2023, Michelson plans to convene directors, education staff and “hopefully at least one trustee” from the 25 museums that have received funding through the Vitality Arts Project for Art Museums in Minneapolis. “We want it to become an opportunity for them to share and build more community so they can help the creative aging movement move forward within art museums,” she said.

The field of creative aging has only been around for about 20 years. In the grand scheme of things, it’s still in its formative stages. But as Americans — and more specifically, the parents of foundation program officers and deep-pocketed donors — continue to live longer, the issue should generate more traction across the arts education field. In the meantime, Michelson continues to tackle the root causes of ageism while leaning a partnership-centric approach to provide arts education to as many people aged 55 and over as possible.

“I believe that older adults are underserved in arts education,” she said. “If I’m strategic in spending the dollars, I can possibly cause a shift in arts education and show that this is a population that funders can be serving.”