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Provocation by Edwin Torres

Photo Credit: DanceNYC

I’d like to start with an anecdote. Prior to becoming President of Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA), I served as deputy commissioner for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. It was in that role that the value of our society’s investment in health was most clearly explained to me by Dr. Loree Sutton, a brigadier general and army psychiatrist who was serving as the city’s commissioner for Veterans Affairs. Commissioner Sutton drew a triangle with the widest part at the bottom.  

“At the wide bottom are health interventions that are low-cost and low-stigma. At the top is high-cost, high-stigma, like medication,” Sutton said. “American society has built industries and focuses its money at the top – on the most highly stigmatized and expensive part of the triangle.” “But at the bottom,” she continued, “are the easiest things to do, that also prevent our residents from getting sick, needing medication, and going into debt. This is where public health lives… and this is where the arts live.”   

This we have seen personally, as well as the strong evidence that exists demonstrating how arts and culture positively impact health.   

The Porch Light Program - a collaboration between Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services - is a prime 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.   

An evaluation 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. 

  • A promising and sustained decrease in stigma toward individuals with mental health or substance abuse challenges. 

Learn more about the Porch Light Program 

In another example, 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 and art participants – is positively correlated with improved health outcomes, with higher correlation in low-income communities.  

Please follow this link to learn more about this study 

The Social Impact of the Arts research team were quick to point out that this evidence does not mean that cultural assets directly cause good health. Instead, they explained, 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.   

Grantmakers in the Arts is so consistently impressed with the great work being done centering the arts as a part of health. Arts, for example, provide opportunity to serve and heal our returning veterans as initiatives by Walter Reade National Military Medical Center, the National Endowment for the Arts and Americans for the Arts have proven. We at GIA also caution against accepting the frame of arts as treatment: this is a deficit frame and we deserve more. Our framing of the role of arts in health is too often fragmented into solutions for problems – as though the health benefits of the arts need not be invoked absent such problems. In this approach, the presumption is that we are not worthy of investment in our creative self-expression unless we have earned it through injury, trauma or vulnerability. As if arts and healing are good but can only happen after injury or trauma. As if arts and aging are meant to slow cognitive decline and social isolation but not to prevent them.  

I propose this: we can replace our love of thin-slice expertise and solutions that we embrace only in response to a crisis. We can replace these fixations with investments in the kinds of lifelong development that include the arts, but to do so requires our courage and our humility.   

We can frame arts and health as a lifelong commitment to continued cognitive, emotional and psychological development and social connectedness. This is a commitment of which we are worthy, simply for our being human. Let’s not limit ourselves to a deficit frame. Let’s instead embrace arts as part of a lifetime of positive health.  

Written by:

Edwin Torres

President & CEO

Grantmakers in the Arts

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