Idea File: Geezer Gallery paints new picture of ‘old’

Artists who happen to be age 60+ make money and feel good at a gallery just for them.

The idea
Frank Springer is a retired vice cop who lives alone. Every day he goes down to his basement kiln and creates plates made from colored fused glass. It provides a sense of purpose and helps him get up in the morning. He’s 99 years old.

His work is exhibited in the Geezer Gallery in Portland, OR, a space exclusively dedicated to senior-created professional art. You won’t find any macaroni designs here – everything from bronze sculptures to jewelry to acrylic paintings and pastels is on display and for sale. The artwork also appears in retirement communities and businesses around town, and owner Amy Henderson has also started bringing art programs to homebound and low-income seniors.

“Big Bang Theory” by Harriet Levi. “I am always growing and changing as an artist and as a person. Stagnation kills the soul,” she says.

Why “geezers”? Henderson frames it this way: it’s all about showing seniors like Frank that the aging process is full of creative possibilities and not to be feared. The gallery also helps combat ageist stereotypes.

“I love when younger people come in and go ‘Oh my gosh, I was expecting ducks and doilies,’” she says. “They’re starting to challenge in their own minds the paradigm we put forth about aging and the reality of it.”

Intentions to action

Henderson specifically recalls three experiences that helped her move from an abstract image in her mind to concrete paintings on the walls:

  1. A survivor of domestic abuse, Henderson started to see the striking parallels between the messages sent to the older population—that they’re worthless, a burden, and have no purpose—and domestic abuse victims after visiting a 96-year-old family friend in a nursing home.
  2. Every year Nike works with a handful of terminally ill children at a Portland hospital to design tennis shoes, which are then sold regionally. Henderson was struck by the tremendous positive impact the project had on the kids emotionally, physically, and mentally. If creativity and entrepreneurship could be so powerful at one end of the life course, why not the other?
  3. At a low-income housing project she visited one day, Henderson was incredulous at all the amazing artwork decorating the walls. Turns out it was all found in homes after elderly residents had passed away: yet another instance that showed that older adults aren’t just sipping on prune juice all day long.

After the idea was seeded, Henderson went to a local college and devoted her studies to developing a savvy business plan. A few years later, armed with a Master’s degree in gerontology, she collaborated with local nonprofits such as Loaves and Fishes and Elders in Action to bring the gallery to life.

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“Night Club Argument” by Martin Anderson. ““I have done art my whole life and becoming a senior doesn’t change that,” he says.

Replicability factor
The gallery isn’t without its challenges. Funding is a huge one, as is educating the public about just how beneficial art therapy is for seniors. Getting the word out about the space can be difficult as well.

Despite the challenges, the gallery has been a success in Portland so far. Henderson would love nothing more than to see geezer art wowing people everywhere. If you think you might want to try something like this where you live, here’s her advice to get started:

  • Float the idea to your community first. Who’s going to be supportive? What’s going to be a challenge?
  • Have a business plan. Foundations especially want to see this if they’re going to dole out cash.
  • Create a board. It’ll give your nonprofit street cred, not to mention potential avenues of funding.

Henderson is also willing to be a consultant. “We’ve done the legwork, we know the pitfalls,” she says. “We could really assist someone with this model. It would be easy to replicate somewhere else.”

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If you’re in the Portland area, the Geezer Gallery is currently looking for social media and administrative volunteers. They’re also seeking board members. Not in Oregon? Check out the 400+ volunteer opportunities listed on Idealist related to seniors and art.

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