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Museum Creates Program for Families Suffering from the Opioid Crisis

Approximately 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017 alone. For families hurt by addiction, the Currier Museum of Art in New Hampshire has created an unprecedented program that uses art as a healing tool for those affected by the epidemic in a state that’s ranked third in the nation for drug overdoses.

“The Art of Hope” program in action as participants consider Claude-Joseph Vernet’s “The Storm” (1759) (courtesy the Currier Museum of Art, photo by Shawne K. Wickham/NH Union Leader)

New Hampshire’s most populous city has a major drug problem, but the Currier Art Museum is here to help families affected by addiction. The Manchester museum’s education department created “The Art of Hope” program in partnership with Partnership for Drug Free Kids, to provide a safe space for relatives of those struggling with drug use to discuss methods of resilience, self-care, social connection, shame, and hope.

Participants spend a few hours each week contemplating the museum’s collection and completing small art projects meant to provide coping mechanisms, and healing tools meant to mend broken relationships between families and their drug-using relatives.

The focus of each session varies, but most begin with an introspective look at paintings like the 18th-century French painter Claude-Joseph Vernet’s “The Storm” (1759). Educators choose works that can speak to the tempestuous nature of drug addiction and the collateral damage it can inflict on loved ones. Accordingly, Vernet’s painting depicts turbid waters and a shipwreck, with scrambling survivors dragging loved ones ashore and a gloomy mountain-bound fortress in the distance.

“There’s blue out there beyond,” a woman observes at a recent group session documented by Shawne Whickham for The New Hampshire Union Leader. “It’s going from the chaos to sunshine and glory.”

When asked by a facilitator why the people in the painting were so important to each other, one woman replied, “Survival. Helping each other. It goes to show when there’s some disaster, people do pick it up.”

“It shows that just because you made it to shore, you may not be safe,” another person said while looking at Vernet’s menacing waves.

Claude-Joseph Vernet, “The Storm” (1759), oil on canvas, 38 1/2 in. x 53 in. (97.79 cm x 134.62 cm) (courtesy Currier Museum of Art)

In 2015, Manchester, New Hampshire accounted for nearly a quarter of fatal drug overdoses reported across the state, which also has the third-highest rate of drug overdose death in the nation. Three years later, the city is showing signs of improvement. Statistics from 2017 indicate a 27% decrease in overdose deaths from 2016 (although nonfatal overdoses rose by 11%) and more people are using the city’s 24-hour Safe Stations built to assist addicts looking for help.

But relief in a state that President Donald Trump once derisively referred to as “a drug-infested den” cannot come quickly enough for the wide network of families affected by the ongoing opioid crisis, which claimed 72,000 lives last year.

“The Art of Hope” began upon the suggestion of the museum’s director, Alan Chong, and was then spearheaded by Lynn Thomson, an assistant director of education and community engagement who has worked at the Currier for the last six years.

“We are helping the community by offering them a place of respite and a sense of hope,” Thomson tells Hyperallergic. “Art is a powerful way to engage people in dialogue.”

Thomson, who has worked in museums for the last 20 years, explains that the program began with a simple question: What is Manchester dealing with now, and what does the community need? Chong suggested that the Currier collaborate with Partnership for Drug Free Kids on a program, and thus “The Art of Hope” was born. The nonprofit organization, which runs national campaigns to prevent teenage drug and alcohol abuse, also has a host of parent-mentors that help others in situations where their loved ones are suffering from substance abuse.

Thomson says that three of these parent-mentors have worked with the program from the very beginning, lending their expertise on what topics to cover and how to approach them.

“We hear so much about those that are suffering from the disease, but then there are loved ones who are suffering in a different kind of way,” Thomson notes. “The impact on them is also huge.”

Accordingly, “The Art of Hope” program also engages its participants in some crafting exercises. After looking at “The Storm,” for example, group members created stamps and designed cards that would ideally be sent out to estranged relatives or friends as a way of reaching out. After viewing a brightly-colored abstract landscape by Hans Hoffman, facilitators led participants in a meditative breathing exercise; later they created clay coil pots.

“It was mostly just about slowing down and taking a few minutes to breathe,” explains Thomson, “Folks are just constantly going — especially when you have the weight of such a heavy problem on your shoulders like substance abuse.”

“The Art of Hope” participants create stamps and postcards to send to loved ones that they may have lost touch with during the opioid crisis (courtesy the Currier Museum of Art, photo by Shawne K. Wickham/NH Union Leader)

Although the exact number of people affected by a family member’s drug use is unknown, the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that over 92,100 children were placed in the foster care system in 2016 due to removal from their homes associated with parental substance use. Additionally, many children with drug-addicted parents end up living with uncles, aunts, and grandparents. Many participants in “The Art of Hope” program fall into this category.

Facilitators use the Currier’s collection to try and speak to the specific experience of being a caregiver. “The Art of Hope” has included paintings such as Glenn Ligon’s “Invisible Man” (1991) and bigger installations like Ethan Murrow’s “Hauling” (2018), which illustrates Manchester’s complex histories of labor, collaboration, migration, and community.

Ethan Murrow, “Ledgers of Hine” (2018), graphite on paper, 121.9 × 121.9 cm (48 × 48 in.) (Courtesy of the artist and Winston Wächter Fine Art. © Ethan Murrow 2018)

Manchester is a city hit particularly hard by the drug epidemic because it struggles with a prevalence of illicit fentanyl, which can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine; it’s a chemical that can be tinkered to create even more powerful drugs and subvert regulation. Manchester is close to Highway 93, which connects the city to Lawrence, Massachusetts, a town that authorities believe to be the main repository of smuggled drugs on the East Coast.

Speaking with Hyperallergic, Thomson notes the breadth of issues facing Manchester’s community of drug users. The epidemic is so bad, she says, that recovery centers have waitlists and not enough beds to accommodate the demand for their services. With such a strain on city resources, the museum is providing some ancillary relief.

Lois, a parent-mentor in the program who requested Hyperallergic use only her first name due to privacy concerns, says that the Currier program is unique for New Hampshire. “It is a mix of practical assistance and self-care that these families don’t often have access to,” she adds.

Thomson agrees, saying that she has not seen any other museums nationwide with preexisting programs to support communities affected by drug overdose.

But there is hope. She says that a number of colleagues have reached out to the Currier about “The Art of Hope” program for advice. Unlike the Currier’s program, however, Thomson predicts that these initiatives will likely be directed toward those struggling with addiction and those in recovery.

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