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Public Art as Public Health

Last week I attended the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors’ annual conference, held this year on the Emory University campus in Atlanta. As I was sitting in one of the conference rooms waiting for the program to begin, the latest issue of Public Health Post displayed on the side table caught my eye. I picked it up and opened the publication to the following article written by the magazine’s contributing writer Maggie Thomas. The article spoke volumes to me about what an art explosion in our community could positively do for us visually, and more importantly, mentally. I could not have penned my thoughts on the subject any better, so, here it is . . .

Can we really afford public art? Can we justify spending on art when so many public needs are underfunded? There has long been support for public investment in art despite the opacity of its impact on people and communities. Studies are increasingly demonstrating the concrete positive, public health benefits of public art.

Key forms of public art linked to better health include art installations in medical facilities, community involvement in creating public art, and art rooted and displayed in community spaces to strengthen and create solidarity.

The health benefits of public art in medical facilities are most easily measured, as patients are an identified population and are already being assessed for health outcomes. The range and impact of art in medical facilities is compelling evidence of the health-promoting role art can play. Patients in hospitals have been found to experience less anxiety, lower levels of pain, and faster healing after medical procedures when their hospital surroundings incorporated various forms of art. Medical facilities have drawn on research which explores the impact of the content of art as well as its simple presence, leading to emphasis on uplifting and representational images, art which depicts and reflects nature, and attention to a diverse array of art forms and content. These choices can support the potential for hospital-based public art to motivate patients to leave their rooms and engage in the facility, establish hopeful expectations about treatment, and generally improve self-reported mood and stress.

The health impact of community-engaged and community-based public art is more complex to measure in terms of health impact, but what we do know from evaluation projects is exciting and encouraging. Public art developed and installed in community spaces can impact community health in multiple ways. Much of this is participatory public art, which engages community members in the planning and creation of the art itself. Projects like Power House Productions, in Detroit, can increase community members’ sense of identity and belonging, reducing isolation and negative mental health and emotional health outcomes.

Some participatory public art projects intentionally engage community members with differences, such as Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Porch Light Program, which actively includes people with behavioral health challenges in community groups creating public mural art. That program’s evaluation study found public health benefits ranging from improved neighborhood safety to decreased stigma around mental health issues to increased innovation in designing substance abuse treatment programs.

Marsaili Cameron and colleagues note that arts communities and public health communities share a dedication to improving individual and community well-being. This common goal highlights the nexus at which public art impacts public health. Public art’s ability to decrease stress, elicit awe, develop shared identity, reinforce self-efficacy, and promote positive health behaviors are clear public health impacts. That these impacts are stronger with strong creative engagement, as an initiative evaluation in London found, emphasizes the importance of the holistic, aesthetic impact of public art as opposed to other forms of public engagement.

Public art with public health impacts takes many forms, from a contemporary art collection at the Cleveland Clinic, reducing patients’ stress, to a gorgeous drinking fountain in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, emphasizing cultural identity. Public art has real public health benefits, transmitted at the community level. As such, the public sector has an essential role to play in supporting public art for the well-being of all citizens.

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