The Role of Arts and Culture in Health

A version of this essay will be published in the June/July edition of the Grantmakers in Health (GIH) bulletin, aligning with this year’s GIH annual conference on June 12-14, at which GIA will present the work of the Center for Arts in Medicine at University of Florida, The Kresge Foundation, and artist collective Harriet’s Apothecary.

Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) believes that arts and culture deserve public and philanthropic support because they have both intrinsic value and social value. This is why we are grateful to feature the insights of public health research consultant Tasha Golden on our blog and to participate in discussions hosted by the arts and public health initiative launched by ArtPlace America and University of Florida’s Center for Arts in Medicine.

The social value of the arts includes the benefits of arts participation upon our health, which are well-documented. In one study of stroke survivors in the U.K. who were encouraged to play instruments, ninety percent reported improvements in their physical and mental health. In another U.K. study, dance lessons were shown to improve concentration and communication skills among those displaying early signs of psychosis. These findings complement the noted improved mobility, pain-reduction, mental stimulation, and social connection found in the Mark Morris Dance Group’s Dance for PD program, which trains people with Parkinson’s disease in dance. These and other studies have revealed that the cultivation of health through the development of creative agency is an alternative to over-medicalizing people. It is for reasons like these that public agencies in Canada and the U.K. have begun granting social prescriptions, in which care providers prescribe therapeutic art-based treatments for mental health issues like psychosis, as well as dementia and lung conditions.

Here in the States, the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund has launched Arts in Health, a new initiative to support organizations utilizing the arts to address health issues and disparities that impact New York communities and emphasize the arts as a tool for healing and for building understanding. In the first year of this initiative, support from the Illumination Fund has focused on organizations working on issues of mental health stigma, trauma, and aging-related diseases.

The health benefits of the arts also extend to care providers. The University of New Mexico’s Arts-in-Medicine study of 2007 found that arts programs lowered the rates of tension, anger, depression, and fatigue – symptoms of compassion fatigue (formerly called burnout) – in nursing staff. These benefits to care providers are essential to effective care provision.

Another element central to effective access to care provision – particularly care for mental health and substance abuse challenges – is the overcoming of accompanying stigma. One of the many benefits of arts participation is the reduction of stigma.

The Porch Light Program – a collaboration between Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services – is an example of arts and public health living together. The Porch Light Project provides a place for Philadelphia residents being treated for mental health and substance abuse challenges to participate in a combination of treatment and creation of a public mural. A Yale University study of the project after two years revealed the following social and health benefits: an increase in collective efficacy (a combination of cohesion and trust); an increase in perceived neighborhood safety; and a promising and sustained decrease in stigma toward individuals with mental health or substance abuse challenges.

Arts and culture can also help address trauma and nurture positive cultural identity. As Jamie Hand, ArtPlace America’s director of Research Strategies, and researcher Tasha Golden write in the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Community Development Innovation Review, entire communities can experience trauma through generations of disinvestment. In Wisconsin, the Menominee Nation is addressing high Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) scores, low graduation rates, and historical trauma by blending positive cultural identity into trauma-informed education. For instance, some teachers are combining lessons on plant life with traditional Menominee stories to draw the connections between science and the students’ cultural connections with the Earth, their ancestors, and each other.

These examples speak not only to the health benefits of participation in arts and culture. They speak to the integral nature of art and culture, health, and community development. The University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP)’s study of New York City found that the presence of cultural assets – such as arts organizations, artists, art participants – is positively correlated with improved health outcomes, such as decline in diabetes and hypertension; decline in child abuse or neglect; decline in low-birth weights; and decline in teen birth. They also site higher correlation in low-income communities. The SIAP research team are quick to point out that this evidence does not mean that cultural assets directly cause good health. Instead, cultural assets are a part of a healthy community. These examples speak to the social determinants of health, an approach embraced by the public health community, among others.

GIA recognizes that these overlapping content areas and approaches create challenges to grantmakers. When so many elements contribute to the health of our residents – what do you not fund? I worked as a grantmaker in both the private and public sector in an area that was opportunity-dense for a decade and I have also worked with grantmakers in areas that they identify as opportunity-sparse. Information that increases the complexity of funding decisions is frustrating, but I’ve experienced the grantmaking community as one that is embracing of informed deliberation, strategic, and energetically iterative. I am excited by the opportunities we continue to see to blend arts and culture with wellness, illness-prevention, and treatment.