Some Hints for the Artist in Social Institutions

Artists working in institutional environments can have a great impact on the lives of their participants. Artists in residence may work with the disabled in special schools or arts centers; the emotionally handicapped in residential and day treatment centers; the incarcerated in juvenile halls, youth camps, and prisons; children in homes and hospitals; and the frail elderly in senior centers and residential nursing facilities.

Social institutions have specific rules and schedules. Become fully aware of procedures, special handling of participants, and limitations. It is essential to work within the policies and rules of these institutions. You may be held responsible if a problem or injury occurs due to negligence.

Do the necessary research that will enable you to better understand the problems of the specific group with which you will be working. Prisons often have a handbook of policy rules; ask for this handbook and other printed material that might orient you to prison expectations. In addition, consult superintendent’s staff meeting minutes, which are usually put out weekly for all prison personnel.

Plan activities to meet the specific needs and interests of the group. It is especially important to plan for any physical limitations, as well as for mental or emotional ones. Flexibility and adaptability of activities is necessary. Try not to become frustrated if things move slower than you expected.

Be prepared for surprises, exaggerated emotional states, sudden changes, extreme physical disabilities, and, in some situations, bizarre or antisocial behavior. Respond with positive control rather than negative.

Remember that strong focus and patience is needed in these situations. Keep your focus on art and not on the client’s problems. You are in a position to make positive changes in the environment, to encourage people to direct their energy into creative, productive endeavors. In order to accomplish this, you must be in control of your own actions and emotions and be sensitive to both the staff and participants. Do not make anyone “wrong,” but find ways to redirect behavior. Avoid any direct confrontations.

Remember that the staff working in social institutions have many demands placed upon them. Be sensitive to the often tedious and difficult work that they must do every day. Work with them, not against them.

Source: Performing Tree, an Arts Education Organization in Los Angeles