Grantmakers in the Arts 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 for the privilege of featuring in our blog series the insights of public health research consultant Tasha Golden and of participating in discussions hosted by the arts and public health initiative launched by ArtPlace America and University of Florida’s Center for Arts in Medicine. And it is why we are grateful to contribute this brief essay to Grantmakers In Health.
The social value of the arts includes the benefits of arts participation for our health, which are well-documented. In one study of stroke survivors in the United Kingdom 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 ailments ranging from 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 that utilize the arts to address health issues and disparities that impact New York communities and that emphasize the arts as a tool for healing and for building understanding. In its 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.
The Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund recently awarded $1.5 million over three years to NYC Health + Hospitals – the largest municipal health system in the country, serving approximately 1.1 million New Yorkers annually—to launch the Arts in Medicine program, to expand programs serving health care staff, patients, and communities across the city. As well as serving patients, the Arts in Medicine program will create new initiatives for care providers to reduce stress and support emotional health.
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 the creation of a public mural. A Yale University study of the project revealed the following social and health benefits after two years: 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.
Another example of this kind of work is the 100 Stone Project in Alaska, which has received support from ArtPlace America, a ten-year collaboration among a number of foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions. With the mission of positioning arts and culture as a core sector of community planning and development, the 100 Stone Project in Alaska was a statewide initiative that used a collaborative approach in which an artist worked with 100 community members to develop public sculptures to depict their stories of illness, trauma, and grief. The project involved 30 communities and over 600 volunteers, artists, and allies to cultivate community, creativity, and resilience.
Arts and culture can also help address trauma. 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.
The One Poem at a Time project, led by IDEAS xLab in the Smoketown neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky, is a communitywide collaboration that replaced dozens of negative billboard advertisements for products like tobacco and alcohol with positive photographs of residents accompanied by their own poems of empowerment. The residents then used the public art and attendant civic engagement to advocate for public policies preventing future predatory advertising in Smoketown.
Arts and culture can also nurture positive cultural identity. 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, but also to the integral nature of art and culture, health, and community development. The University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project’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 Social Impact of the Arts 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.
Grantmakers in the Arts 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 so excited by the opportunities to blend arts and culture, wellness, illness-prevention, and treatment.