Strolling around the Venice Biennale not long ago I observed how calm people were. They were moving slowly and rhythmically, speaking quietly or not at all, gazing intently at the work on show. Sure they may have been slightly soporific due to 30+ degree temperatures but I am certain that there is something more powerful at work here and research on the well-being benefits of art supports this.
My research specialism is art and dementia and an increasing number of studies demonstrate that looking at, discussing and making art leads to improvements in mood, attention and quality of communication. Art is now recommended in the training of healthcare professionals and even Hollywood stars like Jim Carrey are opening up about art improving their mental health.
A recent report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts and Health presents convincing evidence for the multiple benefits of creativity to mental health. These include decreases in anxiety and stress, not just in patients but also for health and social care staff. Even if you’re cynical about the health and well-being benefits of art, health economists are finding that the use of art saves money as people use health services less.
It not just looking at art that is beneficial, it is also the context in which viewing takes place. Galleries and exhibitions often have a special ambience that is soothing, something I noted when studying the impact of a geopolitical exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary.
Charities such as Paintings in Hospitals ensure that all get access to great art, especially health and social care sites, demonstrating that even dull, clinical settings can be transformed when art is introduced. I found that even art in the street can make people feel better.
Art has the power to open up discussions about mental health, a topic that remains highly sensitive, with those experiencing mental distress subject to stigmatisation. A recent two-day pop-up exhibition of artwork made by people with dementia in a public square: The Imagination Café attracted hundreds of people. Although designed for those with dementia, including visual arts activities from the project Dementia and Imagination and group singing events like Singing for the Brain, visitors, many of whom did not have dementia, responded very positively.
This demonstrates the value of creative community events to raise awareness of mental illness, to showcase the power of art in improving mental health, and to talk about research with the public. My 2013 exhibition ‘Art in the Asylum’ charted the diagnostic and therapeutic use of art in asylums and the reception of work made by patients in the art-world such as those by Surrealists.
The three-month exhibition attracted 10 000 visitors with many members of the public attending parallel events on topics including Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), ancient philosophy and mental health, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Back in Venice, the incredible artwork of Luboš Plný, a man diagnosed with schizophrenia, adorns the Central Pavilion in the Pavilion of Hopes and Fears. Over in the Arsenale, critically acclaimed work by Judith Scott and Dan Miller is displayed in the Pavilion of Colours. Both artists are affiliated with Creative Growth in California, where their artistic abilities were nurtured and promoted, despite significant health challenges.
With the evidence growing and with over-stretched health and social care budgets, it is logical to make more use of freely (and often free to enter) available community resources like galleries and museums. There are lots of toolkits and excellent learning teams and events to guide the novice art-lover, for instance ‘Take Notice’ at Manchester Art gallery. Initiatives like social prescribing and arts such as art therapy on prescription encourage more people with mental health problems to experiences the benefits of creativity.
Given the benefits, artists could play a far more prominent role in health and social care. Their training foregrounds playfulness, flexibility and curiosity, bringing different, complementary and refreshing skills to a beleaguered health and social care sector.
I’m now putting artists in residence in care homes and have started a research programme to explore the impact of this approach.
As I lost track of time and space in the Giacometti retrospective at Tate Modern recently, I experienced a sense of contentment. I felt rapturous and inspired in response to the artist’s diverse and masterful depictions of the human form, an experience akin to Csíkszentmihályi’s flow state; whereby you are challenged intellectually and/or physically, creating a sense of concentration and focus that facilitates optimal performance.
What are you waiting for? The 5.8 million visitors to Tate Modern in 2016 are testament to the joys of this national jewel. Make visiting museums, galleries and exhibitions a regular part of your routine. The stimulation and enjoyment you experience could have more mental health benefits than you thought.
Victoria Tischler is professor of arts and health and head of dementia care at the University of West London.