The Roots of Artful Moments

In 2009, a new wing was built at one of Hamilton’s community hospitals with a speciality unit for persons with dementia.  Most patients were living with later stages of dementia and presented with challenging behaviours.  The AGH was initially asked to coordinate artwork to hang in this new environment. Instead, we collaborated on a program that allowed patients themselves to choose what would hang on their walls.  

The focus groups were… inspiring. We realized that art-based experiences offered both an enhanced relationship and engaging activity for persons with dementia and their caregivers far beyond just simply decorating the space where they resided. And importantly, the individual’s reaction or participation was not dependent on their prior enjoyment of, or experience with art.

During this simple act of looking and discussing we saw a move away from disease-focus to the sharing of experiences.  Memories were sparked, opinions (sometimes strong ones!) were shared and we saw social engagement.  Participants were living in a moment free of dementia.  We knew then there was a role for the Gallery to enhance the wellbeing of persons within our community.

The program that emerged from this experience was called Artful Moments, bringing together expertise in art and art education, with the health care team sharing knowledge of the impacts of dementia and proven strategies for engagement.   From the start, the program combined theme-based ‘tours’ using reproductions of art in the hospital, and visits to the Gallery (that were initially thought to be nearly impossible for these patients in the later stages of dementia, but which were overwhelmingly successful) with carefully adapted activities. 

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Evaluation focused on demonstrating engagement in our participants, measured by a number of clinical tools.   While our primary research focused on engagement in the person with dementia, anecdotally we observed much more.  Experiences were shared instead of facilitated, reminiscences were sparked, and participants experienced validation, success, and engagement. (Hazzan et al; Humphrey et al.) I loved the interaction I saw between loved ones, participants and staff. 

Since then, we’ve expanded to work with persons in the earlier stages of dementia who are living in their own homes or a retirement community.  The program combines looking and talking about art from the Gallery’s Collection with hands-on activities over a multi-week program.  We have evaluated the program for engagement and social connection and have observed participants rekindling a love of art from earlier in their lives or discovering it for the first time (Art Gallery of Hamilton, 2019). We use art as a tool to inspire conversation, sharing and wellbeing.

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The stigma or fear associated with a diagnosis or visible disability we know shrinks one’s social connections. One of the biggest health and social care challenges of the 21st century has been stated to be “social isolation and loneliness”.  Our research demonstrated that Artful Moments was now a viable solution to this problem.

When COVID hit Canada in March of 2020 we closed our doors and turned to virtual programs.  We have connected with several new community organizations to continue the growth and impact of Artful Moments, and have explored new ways of connecting with participants remotely, from programs presented online, to phone-based programs, and even gallery experiences using a telepresence robot.

This website brings together the experience and knowledge gathered over the past ten years, in order to help other organizations develop their own programs using what we have learned.  By sharing this work, we hope that more people will experience the joy and connection that come from shared experiences with art.


Initial connection between the AGH and staff at St. Peter’s Hospital (SPH).  Patient focus groups engage with staff to select art for the hospital wing.


12-month project at St. Peter’s Hospital, funded by the Ontario Arts Council and the, SPH Foundation: Monthly visits – two each month at SPH, and one at AGH.  Participants include patients and family carers.  Evaluation focused on engagement in persons with late stage dementia.  Study published: Hazzan et al.; Humphrey et al.


A 12-month follow-up program offered exclusively at SPH with twice monthly visits, up to 18 patients with staff support, funded by 100 Women Who Care.


Programs shift to on-site sessions at AGH for people in the early stages of dementia living in community.  Six-week programs offered throughout the year for people living with dementia and family and friends.  Funding provided by Ontario Trillium Foundation (Art Gallery of Hamilton, 2019; Kilgour-Walsh, L., 2020)


Artful Moments Exhibition of participants work


COVID-19 hits, programs paused.  Artful Moments is published in Canada Museums Association journal, MUSE “Artful Moments: Building Connections through Art”.  Later that year, Artful Moments goes virtual with its first 8-week programs for persons with dementia over zoom.


Virtual programs continue, with the addition of new partnerships and new audiences.  Programs offered online and by phone.  In addition to programs for persons with dementia, AGH partners with Autism Ontario, Young Caregivers Association, and St. Joseph’s Hospital – Schizophrenia Outpatient programs.  Artful Moments is presented at both the CAGE (Canadian Art Gallery Educators) and OMA (Ontario Museums Association) virtual conferences.


All previous programs continue virtually with the addition of new partner organizations, Hamilton Seniors Centre Without Walls and Good Shepherd Centre of Hamilton.  Funding received from the Province of Ontario for special projects including a pilot of virtual and hybrid programs using telepresence robot, and from the Public Health Agency of Canada, Dementia Strategic Fund for an e-learning curriculum (this program).  Artful Moments is presented virtually at the MuseumNext conference.