Do not yet fold your wings

In many ways, art is a young person’s game. It’s central to how children process and share their discovery of life. In adolescence young people use art to explore the world and express identity. Sometimes that unleashes world-changing energy. None of the Beatles was older than 30 when the band separated in 1970. Their subsequent careers show how difficult it can be to find a way of being an artist after the first fires have burnt down. It’s the thirties that really test an artist’s resolve. If they’re lucky, those who sustain their work during the doldrums of middle age find new resources and imperatives in old age. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen produced some of their most admired work after most people have retired.

The possibility that art is a lasting power, that, for professional and non-professional artists, it can help us to navigate the choppy waters of old age, lay behind Winter Fires: Art and Agency in Old Age. It was that project that introduced me to the Baring Foundation, of which I’ve been a trustee since 2013. Baring is a small foundation (the annual arts budget is about £650,000), so it operates by identifying an area on which to focus for a period of five or ten years, aiming to create lasting change as much through partnerships and education as funding. Since 2010, it has concentrated on access to the arts by older people. Although this has been in the context of an ageing society, Baring’s philosophy is rooted in human rights and the belief that a strong civil society is vital to tackling injustice and equality. So the foundation’s focus on older people is guided by their right to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts.

This has not been a therapeutic programme, though Baring is always alive to how people benefit from arts participation, partly because it’s important in itself and partly because it’s essential to building the coalition of partnerships on which older people’s access to art depends. Art and cultural organisations are central, but so are the health and care sectors, voluntary organisations, local and national government and, of course, families and carers. There is no contradiction between human rights, artistic freedom and social outcomes: on the contrary, the strength of participatory art derives from the interaction and combination of these concerns.

Now, after a decade of work, the Baring Foundation is winding down its focus on arts and older people. It’s a moment of mixed emotions. Some partnerships, many of which have become true friendships, are coming to an end, at least in their present form. Many exceptional, dedicated and imaginative arts organisations will be looking elsewhere for support. At the same time, there is deep and justifiable pride in what has been achieved by so many dedicated artists and cultural bodies, and how the field has come of age since 2010. That is documented in the library of reports and other resources produced by the Baring Foundation in recent years, including a review published by King’s College London. And the change has been marked too in a series of events the Foundation has supported, including the South Bank’s (B)old Festival and a celebratory conference hosted by Arts Council England at MAC in Birmingham.

Many of those who have contributed to projects supported by the Baring Foundation over the past ten years have been doing this work for much longer than that. Some were pioneering participatory arts with older people in the 1970s and 1980s. They have, naturally, become older themselves and now draw on their personal experience of ageing to make the art they could only imagine when they were young. Bisakha Sarker has been a friend and colleague since the early 1990s. She has, told me of the challenges age has brought her as a dancer, but she has pushed on with resilience and creativity, in a series of artworks and events that have enriched her, the people with whom she’s worked, and audiences, in equal measure. Her Baring Foundation commission, ‘Do not yet fold your wings’, is just one among the thousands of artistic works created over the past decade through this programme. In its beauty, intelligence and courage, it is emblematic of the work of the many, many thousands who have, in their own way, made this last decade an unforgettable affirmation of the gifts of age.