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Gifts of the Muse – Reframing the Benefits of the Arts towards Creating Healthy Communities by Gay Powell Hanna, PhD MFA

Gay Powell Hanna, PhD, MFA, is a scholar and an artist, who works at the intersection of the arts, health and community.  Dr. Hanna serves as President of Hanna Merrill Inc. a research and development corporation dedicated to supporting arts in health services - clients include among others Grantmakers in the Arts, MedStar Health Philanthropy and the National Organization for Arts in Health. She is the lead author of two White Papers for the National Endowment for the Arts‚ The Arts and Human Development ‚ Framing A National Research Agenda for the Arts, Lifelong Learning, And Individual Well-Being (2011) and The Summit on Creativity and Aging in America Report (2016) as well as recently published Literature Review on Arts in Medicine (2017) commissioned by Grantmakers in the Arts;  and,  Addressing the Future of Arts in Health in America (2018) commissioned by the National Organization for Arts in Health. Dr, Hanna is adjunct faculty at George Mason University Arts Management Program.

Dialogue about the value of the arts has been fervent over the past three decades. Can the arts’ value be instrumental or is it intrinsic? In fact, coming out of the Culture Wars of the 1990’s, The Wallace Foundation commissioned The Rand Corporation to produce “The Gifts of the Muse – Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts” (McCarthy, 2004). This publication, based on the research found at that time, concluded that the benefits of the arts did not have sufficient efficacy to be deemed instrumental. Furthermore, the authors cited specifically the value of the arts to health benefits as being atheoretical (Ibid .p.22). Advocates for the arts’ value in education, health and economic impact were shocked (Sandow, 2005).

This publication instead promoted “intrinsic values” as being the missing link in the contemporary debate. The authors explained intrinsic benefits as being a communicative and an aesthetic experience that expanded an individual’s capacity to be empathetic (McCarthy,2004; p.44); and, that the arts contribute to the public sphere through their ability to encourage social bonding and cultural meaning (Ibid. p.44). I was the Executive Director of the Society of the Arts in Healthcare at that time and remember the initial chilling effect of this report on the blossoming field of arts in health. Then, I witnessed the galvanizing efforts across the disciplines of the arts, health and social services that worked to build evidence and consolidate partnerships throughout the spectrum of arts related to health and wellness.

Nearly 15 years later, Art Place in partnership with the University of Florida’s Center for Arts in Medicine, facilitated in part by The Rand Corporation, brought together policy makers, funders, educators and researchers to work together to plan and build a national infrastructure using the arts to create healthy communities on January 17 and 18, 2019 at The Brookings Institute and Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

The Gifts of the Muse” (McCarthy, 2004) was not off track in the analysis of the intrinsic benefits of the arts. The ability of an individual to be captivated and experience pleasure is essential to wellbeing. The arts’ capacity to build empathy and support cognitive growth develops resilience and innovation. Adding into this mix, the arts’ public contributions in creating social bonds and understanding cultural meaning ensures the arts are of value to the 21st century American communities – small and large; urban and rural; rich and poor. The main point, though, is that these “intrinsic” values are in actuality instrumental.

Did the arts organically grow into this synthesis over the past 15 years? Well, no because healthcare providers grew to embrace the benefits of the arts. Now, health providers greatly value the attainment of empathy, resilience, social bonding and the knowledge of and respect for cultural meaning. It was very evident throughout the Creating Healthy Communities – Arts + Public Health in America workshop in January that what trained artists, related arts organizations and educational institutions provide is vital to the health and wellbeing of contemporary America’s inclusion society. Yes, the arts are intrinsically instrumental from their ancient roots nourishing healing and restoring caregiving as well as to provide healthy places to live individually and as a community at large.

Where are the naysayers about arts in health benefits from the 1990’s and early 2000s? We find them more isolated now, focusing still on aesthetic abstractions that leave the majority of fine arts graduates bereft of jobs in the arts fields; and, scrambling to find meaningful work beyond their own hyper specialized arts community. Therefore, the message that I received from the ArtPlace January workshop was that now is the time for artists, arts educators and arts administrators to be at the table with their peers in public health. The evidence base is building, partnerships are developing and opportunities abound for the arts to be engaged in broad and profound ways in their communities.

Take a look at the recently released plan by the Rhode Island Arts and Health Network Steering Committee: The doors are open for the arts to play a crucial role in the health and wellbeing of every individual and community in the nation. Does this broadened mission of service for the arts in creating healthy communities mean we need to lessen quality of the art making? No, it does not. In fact, this kind of art making allows the artists to deepen their work and does not preclude advancing the aesthetic experience. Will the arts workforce be engaged and meet this demand for service in creating healthy communities? Consider the invitation extended.

Hanna, G. et al. (2019). Addressing the future of arts in health in America. San Diego, CA: National Organization for Arts in Health.

McCarthy, K, F, et al. (2004). Gifts of the Muse – Reframing the debate about the benefits of the arts. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.

Sandow, G. (March 22, 2005). An Artless Dodge – In the Fray. The Wall Street Journal.

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