Taking Note: The Impact of Art in Building a Culture of Health

by Erin Hagan, PhD, MBA, Deputy Director

I frequently make trips between my home in the Bay Area and the East Coast. During a recent trip to New York I spent a morning walking with a friend along the High Line—an elevated freight rail line that was transformed into a public park on Manhattan’s West Side. The High Line displays a wide array of artwork, and also provides access to the new Whitney Museum of American Art. In “city planner speak,” art can help activate public spaces, encouraging people to frequent the area and interact with their surroundings and with each other. It was a chilly fall day when I visited, but the High Line was full of people walking, talking, and stopping to observe the art. The integration of art into the park makes art more accessible to the public and provides an opportunity to mingle physical activity with cultural appreciation.

My experience at the High Line is just one example of the synergies between art and health at play. When I learned of the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) Creativity Connects initiative, which explores how the arts can connect with other sectors such as health, I immediately saw a synergy with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) vision to build a Culture of Health. A Culture of Health is one in which good health and well-being flourish across geographic, demographic, and social sectors. The path to achieving a Culture of Health encourages cross-sector collaboration, and recognizes the impact of social and economic determinants on health outcomes.

Through its efforts to build a Culture of Health, RWJF has established Evidence for Action (E4A). In the same spirit that the NEA awards grants to support research on the arts’ value and impact for other societal domains, E4A funds research investigating the impact of programs, policies, or partnerships—often outside the health system—on health outcomes. For example, we have funded a project exploring the impact of a financial security intervention on health outcomes; an evaluation of a school-based academic and social network intervention; and an exploration of the health impacts of decentralizing a food bank system, among others. Our portfolio of funded projects spans a growing range of topics, some of which could eventually include the arts.

Integration of the arts into our communities may play an important role in building a Culture of Health, and we are interested in research proposals that demonstrate effective strategies for improving health, well-being, and equity. One of our currently funded projects—the Seattle’s Yesler Terrace Redevelopment project—includes community art as a component of broader redevelopment efforts. Although the art project is not a core aspect of the research, it still serves as an example of how the arts can be integrated with the planning of healthy communities. We have also received applications for projects in which art is more central to the overarching research questions. For example, some researchers would like to know whether a public arts project in a disinvested urban neighborhood can improve community health, or how media can influence healthy eating habits.

Are you involved with any of the Creativity Connects “bright spots” featured on the NEA website? These and similar projects may present research opportunities that align with the E4A mission. Research that evaluates the integration of arts into the health sector is one possible approach, such as projects that incorporate arts into the healing, rehabilitation, and recovery processes. Equally as appropriate are proposals that incorporate measures of health outcomes into evaluations of arts projects in other sectors outside of health. For example, art as a community engagement strategy, or the aesthetic redesign of streetscapes or other public spaces beautification projects that are designed to enhance social cohesion or safety. The expansion or reduction of art programs in a community can offer researchers the chance to run natural experiments that test how the presence of the arts impacts health and sustains educational or other societal benefits.

Some of the most interesting proposals we’ve received through E4A came from applicants who didn’t originally consider their endeavors to be related to health, but who were encouraged by collaborators to rethink how their work affects health. Arts-based creativity can bring valuable novelty and innovation to the health sector, and we encourage people working in the arts to examine how their efforts might impact population health.

If you’re thinking about applying for E4A funding, here are a few things you should know. We accept applications on a rolling basis—there is no deadline for submission. Research projects submitted to E4A are evaluated based on their rigor, actionability, relevance, feasibility, contribution to the evidence base, and inclusion of health outcome measures. Competitive applications clearly outline a research approach and rigorous design, demonstrate the importance and actionability of the outcomes, and present compelling and innovative connections between the proposed research and creating a national Culture of Health.

Through E4A we want to capitalize on opportunities, whenever different disciplines intersect with health, to evaluate impacts and to highlight the contributions of these efforts toward building a Culture of Health. Research questions about how engagement in the arts impacts community health, well-being, and equity is one area of inquiry that could present such an opportunity.

Originally posted on National Endowment for the Arts Blog, November 3rd, 2016.


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