Communicating through Art: Museum clinical study partnership considers the role of art in combating primary progressive aphasia

Throughout Winter 2022, The Block Museum of Art and The Northwestern University Center for Audiology, Speech, Language, and Learning (NUCASLL) partnered on an innovative clinical study centering on art-based discussion in the treatment of primary progressive aphasia (PPA).  Working together, the units developed the trial program “Conversations Through Art” as a clinical treatment case-study.  The nine-week program provided facilitated conversations on artworks in the museum collection, led by NUCASLL faculty and graduate students, as part of a clinical treatment plan for patients with PPA. 

“It has been a longstanding goal of mine to have The Block involved in Northwestern’s pioneering clinical work.  It has been extraordinary learning experience for us to partner with Aaron Wilkins and his team at Northwestern University Center for Audiology, Speech, Language, and Learning to understand the crucial role art can play in strengthening communication and connection among patients”

Lisa Corrin, Block Museum Director.

Challenges of Primary Progressive Aphasia

Dr. Aaron Wilkins is an assistant clinical professor in the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and a clinical supervisor for the Northwestern University Center for Audiology, Speech, Language, and Learning.  One of Wilkins’s central areas of research is Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA) a condition that involves progressive deterioration of language functioning. This aphasia results from degeneration in areas of the brain responsible for speech and language.  The onset of PPA is usually slow and typically begins with difficulty finding words. Communication in persons with PPA progressively worsens over time to the point where any communication is difficult. 

Dr. Aaron Wilikins

In his work with PPA patients, Wilkins found one of the main challenges was combating the isolation of the condition, and building ongoing opportunities for thoughtful conversation and discussion among people who share the diagnosis.  Group work is central to the care plan for patients, as individuals together work through issues such as speaking rate, intelligibility, word finding, and sentence formation.  After encountering a recent Block Museum exhibition Wilkins contacted Block Museum director Lisa Corrin about the possibility of using discussions about art as the basis for this group work.

Developing “Communication through Art”

Corrin connected Wilkins and his team to Erin Northington, the Block’s Associate Director of Campus and Community Engagement.  Together the pair outlined the objectives of the group sessions for the participants which included:

  • Attainment of re-engagement in life by accessing and participating in desired activities
  • Transmitting and receiving messages
  • Establishing and maintaining social relationships
  • Emphasizing competence and inclusion

The team settled on a nine-week syllabus, with each week focusing on one work of art from the Block Museum collection. Northington modeled the initial group conversation, and worked with Wikins and his clinical masters’ students Emma Berry, Erin Marchert, and Sarah Thomas to create and share tools to facilitate generative and multidisciplinary conversations around art.  The clinicians soon became will versed in guiding the sessions and generating conversation on the selected artworks.  The conversational strategies shared by Northington were grounded in close-looking and research on the artist and their work, but focus on broader questions to invite ideas, encourage dialogue, learn from the perspectives of others, and build community.  Strategies were offered to also access non-verbal means of communication, including inviting participants to react to an object or share their ideas through drawing or gesture.

“It is inspiring to watch clinicians become excited and confident in using artwork to support their patients’ goals. The medical team at NUCASLL is thinking and talking about art in a new way, and as a powerful tool in their treatment arsenal.”

Erin Northington, Associate Director of Campus and Community Engagement

Over the nine weeks the clinical group met together on Zoom to discuss the artworks.  The objects were chosen from The Block’s One Book One Northwestern Selections for the 2021-2022 year and focused on the climate crisis. Objects discussed included Ron Kleemann’s Gas Line, from the City Scapes Portfolio, LaToya Ruby Frazier’s A Message in Nestle Water Bottles from Shea Cobb, Amber Hasan, Macana Roxie and LaToya Ruby Frazier at Sussex Drive and West Pierson Road, Flint MI and Erika Navarrete’s Ignorance is Bliss. 

Ongoing Collaborations

The program concluded with an in-person visit to The Block Museum on March 3, 2022. Participants spoke enthusiastically about the pilot and shared hopes that it will continue. One participant noted that the experience of discussing art with a focus on multiple perspectives and mutual learning allowed them to “see through someone else’s eyes,” and, by engaging in conversation about art with their peers, they “found out that I didn’t see the same thing at all.” Another participant noted that they feel more emboldened to share their thoughts, even if communication is difficult, and have learned to extend the same patience to themselves that they do for others when forming and expressing ideas. The graduate student teachers were equally positive, sharing that they feel much more comfortable using art as a way to support their work in speech therapy and have gained new confidence to engage with museums, in and outside of their clinical work. Wilkins and the Block team will continue this work Spring quarter 2022, including a second conversation group focused on works in the Block’s collection, and look forward to strengthening this partnership.

It has been an honor to collaborate with The Block Museum for the benefit of persons with PPA.  It was most heart-warming to see the comradery and community among all the participants of this endeavor.”

-Dr. Aaron Wilkins


The Northwestern University Center for Audiology, Speech, Language, and Learning combines clinical expertise and pioneering research with an unswerving commitment to client care—providing trusted, research-based services to the entire community. Experts in the field – faculty who are nationally certified and state licensed speech-language pathologists – direct provision of clinical services, bringing exceptional knowledge and experience to our clients.

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