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In December 2011, I was fortunate enough to explore the Rembrandt in America exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Can you say, WOW? I have enjoyed art exhibits in major cities, including New York City, Washington, DC, Boston and Florence, Italy. And, and even by comparison, there was something about this collection that really impressed me.

Perhaps it was the seemingly photo perfect quality of some aspects of some of the portraits. Or, it could have been the concept of seeing the revered work of an artist who has inspired generations of art. Or perhaps it was how the exhibit ended with displays on how experts use scientific techniques and tools to help determine the authenticity of paintings, such as tests of the chemical composition of paint on a canvas or x-ray machines used to reveal background images.

The webpage for this exhibit may have summed it up best. “Rembrandt. You know the name. Now find out why.” My parents and I left the experience completely understanding why Rembrandt was a master artist and delighted in the fact that we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves….and learned a lot (including about some science).

credit: Thinkstock.com

One challenge facing artists and public health professionals who intuitively or in practice see positive links between art and public health is providing credible evidence. Funders and communities are increasingly relying on evidenced-based practices to help ensure the best use of limited resources. Projects mixing these areas need even more of the best level of research and analysis to attract long-term investments.

Below is an example of a great article that makes this point and provides some evidence. See the link and abstract below.

This article also highlights the importance of community engagement in the arts and public health. The authors mention how art can influence individual and community well-being; how these types of community engagement projects can provide resources and outlets for artists; and how the best approaches evenly balance artistic and public health goals. Hopefully, future community-based arts projects will heed this advice so that collaborations involving the arts and public health can continue to impress audiences and participants AND enhance community health.

Promoting well-being through creativity: how arts and public health can learn from each other.” Marsaili Cameron, Nikki Crane, Richard Ings and Karen Taylor Perspectives in Public Health 2013 133: 52.

Abstract

For many years, participatory arts projects have been observed to make a significant contribution to the health and well-being of local communities – only for beneficial outcomes to disappear without trace when short-term project funding runs out. At the same time, there has been mounting evidence, commissioned by both arts and health bodies, to show that creativity and the arts do indeed make a significant difference to people’s health and well-being and to how they feel about, and interact with, their neighbours. What can be done to build on and develop the evidence base? Particularly in times of austerity, there is also a need to draw on that evidence to develop principles and recommendations for bodies wishing to commission, and artists wishing to lead, participatory or public art initiatives that are most likely to result in sustained benefit to local people and communities.

This paper suggests ways in which arts and public health professionals can learn from each other and go on to work more effectively together and with local communities. The paper is based on a qualitative evaluation study of a wide-ranging and innovative initiative, Be Creative Be Well (part of a wider programme, Well London) that nurtured around 100 different small participatory arts projects across 20 of London’s most disadvantaged areas.

Through analysis of case studies and desk research, the paper presents a summary of what exactly the artist and the creative process bring to a community context and how that can best be supported by policy makers and funders.


Tell us about art projects in your community that also have a public health twist.

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