Imagine a hospital with musicians on call, able to come to your bedside to play for you. Arts and crafts workshops tailored to the needs of patients with a specific type of illness. Healing gardens with visual arts classes. Weekly lunchtime poetry readings. While it’s not the harsh white light and smell of antiseptic cleaners most people associate with healthcare, this model is gaining in popularity. For decades, some organizations have incorporated the arts into healthcare, and now, as more and more of them are forging partnerships across a variety of organizations, the practice has a broader reach than ever. All of the examples above are real, and they are from one program, Shands Arts in Medicine at UF&Shands, the teaching hospital at the University of Florida.

Learning about programs like this, I had a hunch that partnerships between arts organizations and health organizations will be the next big thing for both groups. I thought with some research I would learn that the number of partnerships between an individual health organization and an individual arts organization has grown in the last five to ten years, and to an extent, that’s true. But some of the best, and even the fastest-growing, programs for the arts in healthcare have been around for decades. The commonality between most of these very robust programs, old and new, is they are not one partnership – they are many partnerships. Programs for the arts in healthcare appear to thrive when they are created and supported by a network of groups, each contributing their own specialty.


I present as informed speculation the idea that programs for the arts in healthcare work best as networks, and suggest it as an area for further exploration. My analysis is based on a subjective impression of which programs are thriving, as demonstrated by the number of patients an organization has served or visitors to an organization’s public galleries, and by an organization’s reputation within the arts or the healthcare communities. Several of these programs have received accolades or positive appraisal from external organizations. For example, CosaCosa’s Healing Art Project has been featured in Designing the World’s Best Children’s Hospitals, a publication of the National Association of Children’s Hospitals, and both NYU and Audience Focus, Inc. have conducted evaluations of New York MoMA’s Meet Me at MoMA that demonstrate the program’s effectiveness.

As the number of arts and healthcare partnerships increases, so does the number of ways the arts and healthcare interact, including therapeutic initiatives, increasing accessibility to the arts (for people whose disabilities may be a barrier), and decreasing the stigma of a disease. The Global Alliance for Arts & Health (formerly the Society for Arts in Healthcare) defines five focus areas for arts and health: patient care, healing environments, caring for caregivers, community well-being, and education. While all of these are valuable, the programs discussed here primarily relate to the first two categories (patient care and healing environments), although many of them may have other benefits.

Art therapy as a field of study originated in the late nineteenth century, as psychologists began to study the connections between art and mental and emotional wellbeing. As early as the 1930’s, psychologists used art in “milieu therapy,” encouraging patients to enjoy and create art as a part of healthy self-expression. More recently, the practice expanded from mental health to physical health. Music therapy as a discipline has followed a similar trajectory, emerging between the First and Second World Wars and first used for war veterans. These fields provide a substantial foundation for programs that combine arts and healthcare, and many healthcare organizations hire art and music therapists directly or through partnerships.

Musicians Care by Sherman Hospital on Flickr

Musicians Care by Sherman Hospital on Flickr

Some of the earliest programs uniting art and healthcare were simple introductions of visual art into healthcare spaces. The British organization Paintings in Hospitals was founded in 1959 by a hospital employee who saw the positive effect that bringing the visual arts into a healthcare environment had on patients’ health and wellbeing. This type of program is still popular today, and now, many art-in-hospitals programs have blossomed into extensive networks of artists, art organizations, and hospitals. National networks such as Paintings in Hospitals and Scotland’s Art in Healthcare are thriving, and many other programs exist on a smaller scale, such as Oakwood Arts for the Spirit in Michigan. These early programs focused on improving the healthcare environment rather than giving patients opportunities to create art themselves. In the next few decades, more participatory arts and healthcare programs were created in a variety of disciplines, such as Dance Exchange’s Metlife Foundation Healthy Living Initiative program, founded in 1978.

Beginning in the 1990s, arts and healthcare partnerships have become increasingly common. Notable organizations include Dance for PD, a partnership between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinsons Group which has spread to over 100 communities, and Concerts in Care, which brings live music to residential care facilities across Canada. Over several decades, the concept of using the arts in healthcare has gained broad currency, as evidenced by numerous articles in mainstream medical journals and popular science periodicals (for example, this study showing that music can ease chronic pain and depression). It has also captured the attention of national policymakers.

The principle of network effects applies here; the more people who participate in a network, the more benefit users get from it. In the case of arts and healthcare partnerships it isn’t the number of people participating that makes the difference, but the number of organizations, and the people are still the ones benefiting. However, there is still a parallel. The more points of access there are for the users, with multiple healthcare organizations and multiple arts organizations participating, the more likely users are to find the program in the first place and find a part of the program that addresses their needs. Presumably, the network also creates opportunities for networking in the sense of making professional contacts, and new collaborations arising out of existing partnerships. The main drawback of having a network is that more people contributing ideas also means a more complex and often less efficient system of implementing them. For networks of organizational partnerships, having clarity and consensus around the group goals for working together as a whole can help to mitigate this drawback.

The Power of Networks

In our highly networked world, partnerships between three or more players have a lot going for them. A number of arts in healthcare programs consider their network of partnerships fundamental to what they do. For example, Shands Arts in Medicine, the hospital described in the introduction, says on its website, “An essential component of [our] mission is to create collaborations with other hospital departments, community arts organizations and hospitals around the world. These collaborations spark projects that move the message of art and wellness to a broader audience.”

A Network of Skills and Specialties

While many thriving arts in healthcare programs are organized as partnerships and networks, there is no set template that works best. In many cases, either a dedicated organization facilitates programming by reaching out to both health and arts organizations, or a healthcare organization brings in art by partnering with several different arts groups in their community. It is less common for one arts organization to partner with several health groups, but this approach seems just as effective.

Networks of program offerings, built on combining the strengths of multiple partners, allow arts organizations to leverage a set of related skills and expertise in multiple ways to target a variety of healthcare needs. For example, through a variety of partnerships the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC offers different programs for cancer patients and survivors, military members and veterans, the general public, and health centers. This array of offerings and of recipients would likely be much smaller if the Smith Center limited itself to partnering with one hospital. Since the healthcare landscape is so multifaceted, the corresponding partnerships with the arts must also extend to many specialties.

Moreover, a network of partnerships can help an arts organization reach one particular audience more fully. For example, the New York Museum of Modern Art’s Meet Me at MoMA offers programs at the museum and on-site for organizations that work with individuals with Alzheimer’s. It also has a monthly interactive gallery program for individuals with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers to come independently. This combination of services, made possible by the museum’s connections to a variety of health care organizations, enables MoMA’s programming to reach people with Alzheimer’s in a variety of stages, at a variety of levels of independence, and in a variety of family and professional care situations.

Healing in the Community

The diversity networks provide helps organizations capture the best opportunities their community has to offer. For example, Snow City Arts in Chicago offers art classes to hospitalized children. While their teaching artist-in-residence program is the core of their offerings, the organization proclaims, “By working side-by-side with local arts organizations, performance groups, music ensembles, and prominent universities, we help ensure our children are learning from Chicago’s brightest artistic minds.” The program works with hospitals to bring this instruction to children who regularly miss school because of their health needs.

Artist Hein at Work by Virginia Lockett on Flickr

Artist Hein at Work by Virginia Lockett on Flickr

The advantage of networks goes in the other direction, too, helping arts and healing organizations play a more connected, more visible role in the community. In the case of COSACOSA’s Healing Art Project, this connection is intentional: “The Healing Art Project reaffirms the time-honored role of artists in sustaining the health of a community.” The project brings together children and youth of a variety of health experiences – healthy kids, kids with disabilities, and kids living in pediatric healthcare centers – to create collaborative artwork. The artwork is displayed in pediatric healthcare centers, and in some cases is an integral part of the design of these centers. Thus, the program is community-oriented both in the creation and the use of the art.

The visibility advantages of being in a network can also help a program expand and connect to the community of people it serves. For example, Dance for PD, which now has branches from Pasadena to Philadelphia to Pune, India, has been given the opportunity to participate in a number of high-profile events, such as the Parkinson’s Unity Walk in New York, which draws around 10,000 attendees.

Looking Ahead

The funding climate for this type of partnership appears to be growing friendlier as art therapy becomes more mainstream. There are several foundations and grant programs with a specific interest in bringing the arts into healthcare, such as the grants made by the Global Alliance for Arts & Health and the Metlife Foundation’s Healthy Aging grant program. Networks of partnerships have the opportunity to maximize their ability to seek support, since different funding avenues may be available to organizations on different sides of the partnership. However, networks also increase the number of variables involved, and any innovative program, especially one that is tangential to an organization’s mission or primary activities, may turn out to be a hard sell to grantmakers and donors if it appears on the surface to be riskier than traditional offerings. Organizations looking to enter partnerships should bear this in mind.

Arts organizations looking to get involved in an arts and healthcare partnership would do well to research the health and arts landscape in their area, to see whether there is an existing network they can join, and to learn what needs are not yet being met. There are a number of great resources put together by established organizations (see below); another benefit of networks is that they encourage a culture of freely sharing information. However, most of the literature out there on partnerships between the arts and healthcare is focused on providing practical guidance on what seems to work; little has been written on why it works. I am hoping to start the latter conversation with this piece, but the topic deserves more thorough attention than I am able to give it here. I envision studies that involve interviewing the leadership and staff of dozens of organizations across the country, including stand-alone projects, one-on-one partnerships, and networks. Such an effort would hopefully demonstrate whether networks are one successful model that has a lot of advantages and happens to be very popular right now, or whether they are truly the best model. The resulting lessons would equip many more organizations to unite healthcare and the arts.


  • Tegan, very provocative piece, and nice to be reminded that arts have a role in the world beyond creative placemaking ; ). Caron Atlas and her colleagues did some really incredible work organizing artists to provide a variety of engagements and supports at the Park Slope Armory – a recovery center for many folks displaced by Hurricane Sandy. It was a powerful reminder that engaging people’s creative capacity is essential not just for healing, but for providing stability and mitigating the impacts of initial trauma. Efforts are now underway to develop strategies that would include the arts in future disaster recovery situations.

    • Thanks, Mike, and thanks for the information. Arts in disaster recovery sounds like a great idea. I’ll have to read more about the Art and Democracy project’s efforts at the Park Slope Armory.

  • Lauren Kingsland

    The Arts & Humanities program at Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University Hospital, Washington D.C. offers writing, painting, dance/movement, fiber art, and music to patients, as well as staff and family caregivers throughout the facility. More than 20 artists visit regularly and are part of the normal landscape of the place.

    • Thank you for this information, it sounds like another great program.

  • Lisa Gallagher

    If looking for an example of this in Ohio, please check out the Cleveland Clinic’s Arts and Medicine Institute. It includes Visual Arts, Performing Arts (Musicians in the Environment and Musicians in Residence), Music Therapy, Art Therapy, and Research. It is a very comprehensive program that many other programs seek to emulate.

  • Excellent. Well Done!

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