BY Chris Sharratt in Opinion | 15 FEB 19

Why Doctors Think Art Can Help Cure You

With art lessons and trips to museums on prescription, the links between culture and health are being reconsidered

BY Chris Sharratt in Opinion | 15 FEB 19

The forthcoming World Healthcare Congress, Europe, which takes place in Manchester in March, will ‘have an arts, health and social change agenda throughout’ explains Clive Parkinson, head of Arts for Health at Manchester Metropolitan University, the UK’s longest established arts and health unit. Parkinson, who has co-programmed the conference with Manchester Museum director Esme Ward, describes the arts focus of the conference as ‘telling’. Bringing together medical professionals, academics and policy makers, and including a keynote speech from Arts Council England CEO Darren Henley, it signals how the arts and health agenda is moving from the periphery to centre-stage. With initiatives such as doctors being encouraged to prescribe art lessons as part of a GBP£1.8 million UK government strategy, and a trip to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts now part of the prescribing options for members of Médecins francophones du Canada, art and wellness are increasingly being talked about in the same breath. As MMFA director general Nathalie Bondil put it last year when the Montreal scheme was announced: ‘In the 21st century, culture will be what physical activity was for health in the 20th century.’

The recent Calm and Collected report by Art Fund is yet another example of the foregrounding of cultural consumption as a healthy lifestyle option. The report’s key finding was that those under 30 are twice as likely to visit a museum or gallery at least once a month in order to ‘de-stress’. These visitors are, it would seem, turning to art galleries and museums as a therapeutic third space. Stephen Deuchar, director of Art Fund, says of the report: ‘We thought we should commission some proper research to investigate how regularly engaging with museums and galleries can contribute to an individual’s sense of wellbeing. The outcomes of the Calm and Collected research clearly confirm that visiting museums more frequently does indeed have a positive effect on one’s overall sense of personal balance and fulfilment.’

Tate Britain, 2010. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Oli Scarff

This is, of course, no great surprise to many of those working in museums and public art galleries who have been promoting the health and wellbeing role of cultural institutions for some time. Their work goes far beyond exhibition making and can include everything from workshops for the elderly to outreach activities in local communities. Yet while the role of arts and culture in terms of physical and mental wellbeing is increasingly being recognized, it is also under threat. Many galleries and museums rely on local authority funding, and as the effects of austerity in the UK continue to be felt, more cuts to already tight budgets are expected. Research by the County Council Network, for example, states that almost GBP£400m has been cut from annual local authority spending since 2010. A report by the Centre for Cities think tank, meanwhile, has also highlighted the drop in city councils’ culture funding. Paradoxically, just as the social benefits of the arts are being championed, a legal obligation to provide social care services is in turn leading to a reduction in councils’ arts spending.

Although arts and health funding may not be joined up, the thinking increasingly is. In November last year for example, the annual conference of the UK gallery education network, Engage, was titled ‘A Social Prescription’ and entirely devoted to the ‘intersection between arts, health, wellbeing and education’. Parkinson delivered the conference’s keynote address in which he made specific reference to the All Party Parliamentary Group On Arts, Health and Wellbeing Inquiry (launched in January 2014) and its July 2017 report, Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing. This comprehensive study presented the findings of two years of research exploring the role of the arts in health and social care, in order to make policy recommendations. Parkinson describes it as ‘an important report at a very critical time’. He adds: ‘As the NHS prepares to roll out social prescribing we could be on the brink of a step-change in the way public health is understood, and how the negative factors that influence health and wellbeing might be mitigated against.’ He is, though, keen to stress that ‘the arts aren’t a panacea for all life’s ills, and one size does not fit all. Context is everything.’

Courtesy: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Parkinson believes that research such as the 2015 Arts For Health report Exploring the Longitudinal Relationship Between Arts Engagement and Health provides compelling international evidence of the long-term benefits of engagement with the arts, including its impact on mortality. And while you could argue that the findings of the Art Fund research are, although useful, at the light-touch end of the spectrum when it comes to the intervention of arts and culture, Parkinson cites research done by the ‘Dementia and Imagination’ project led by Bangor University’s Dementia Services Development Centre as an example of the sharp end of practice. ‘We found that working with 271 people affected by dementia who took part in visual arts appreciation/art making sessions over a couple of years, not only reduced depression and anxiety but significantly improved wellbeing.’ He adds that the data revealed that 37% of the participants had never previously engaged in art. ‘In other words, it was the condition of dementia that brought them to the arts for the very first time. This is powerful and significant.’ 

Speaking when the Montreal initiative was announced last year, Dr Hélène Boyer, vice-president of Médecins francophones du Canada and head of the family medicine department at the city’s McGill University, explained that there is ‘more and more scientific proof’ to support the benefits of the arts for physical and mental health. ‘It increases our level of cortisol and our level of serotonin. We secrete hormones when we visit a museum and these hormones are responsible for our well-being.’ Parkinson, though, is wary of over-medicalizing the conversation. ‘It would be very easy to believe that we somehow need to evidence the impact of the arts in the language of bio-medical science,’ he says. ‘My experience tells me the arts do something more nuanced and subtle than that.’

Main image: Damien Hirst, Pharmaceuticals (detail), 2005, colour inkjet print. Courtesy: © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd

Chris Sharratt is a freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter: @chrissharratt