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Fostering connection: Museum of Fine Arts Access to Art Program

Photo: The reflection of Sixto Escobar, an Air Force Veteran, is seen in a mirror that is part of an art installation at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, June 24, 2022, in Boston, Mass. The installation is for the Portraits of Leadership Community Project, which will be on display from Sept. 2 through Oct. 30, 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass.)
The reflection of Sixto Escobar, an Air Force Veteran, is seen in a mirror that is part of an art installation at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, June 24, 2022, in Boston, Mass. The installation is for the Portraits of Leadership Community Project, which will be on display from Sept. 2 through Oct. 30, 2022. (VA Boston HCS photo by Natalie Rios)

The 2022 Healthcare for Homeless Veterans, or HCHV, Excellence in Advocacy Award was presented to five members of the Museum of Fine Arts’ Access to Art Program during the VA Boston Healthcare System’s sixth annual Community Partners Appreciation Ceremony, June 23, 2022, at the Brockton VA Campus.

The award recognized Barry Brown, Rob Dunlavey and Jan Schwaner, volunteers for the Museum of Fine Arts. Also recognized were Jessica Doonan, accessibility coordinator, and Ronit Minchom, the manager of accessibility from the MFA's Access to Art program. It commended their work in fostering connections that improve the well-being, housing stability and combat isolation of Boston-area Veterans participating in the Department of Housing and Urban Development - Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, known as HUD-VASH.

“Veterans in the homelessness program were able to attend free, monthly virtual museum visits,” said Natalie Rios, a social worker from the VA Boston HCHV program. “These visits reached Veterans who were isolated at home due to the pandemic, health or mental health issues.”

The goal of the partnership between the VA Boston HCS and the Museum of Fine Arts is to help Veterans overcome isolation, and build connections with art and the community that will leave a lasting impact.

“It’s been two years since our first virtual visit to the Museum of Fine Arts,” said Sixto Escobar, an Air Force Veteran. “We experienced a wealth of works of fine art and engaged in productive discussions about them. As a person with great appreciation for the fine arts, I have found my participation extremely rewarding and fulfilling.”

“This past year, we’ve traveled virtually through European landscapes and come back to photographs of Boston’s Nubian murals in Dudley Square,” said Rios. “Our guides selected works that mean something to our Veterans. We’ve studied the Harlem Hellfighters, Apache war bonnets, and sculptures by female artists.” She also noted that each tour features art celebrating the Veterans’ cultural background.

Rios credits the MFA guides for gently encouraging each Veteran’s engagement. Each month, if a Veteran was absent, the MFA team found ways to engage the Veteran at the next tour, invited Veterans to share what kind of art they wanted to see, and customized visits based on the Veterans interests.

“Many of our tours have been in the context of political strife and racial injustice –acknowledging painful moments and exhibiting how powerful art can be as a healing presence and means of expression,” Rios said, adding that during a recent visit to the museum, Veterans expressed their own creativity by making portraits of their heroes as part of the Portraits of Leadership Community Project, a crowdsourced installation that will be presented alongside The Obama Portraits Tour this September.

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