In Createquity’s view, a healthy arts ecosystem maximizes the arts’ capacity to improve the lives of human beings in concrete and meaningful ways. As such, we have sought to better understand the various means by which one measures such improvements, the current state of research across areas of impact, and where there’s room to grow.
Why We Care
Since the evidence base for the benefits of the arts is continually developing and evolving, our investigations in this area have been fairly expansive. We began by grounding our work in the concept of wellbeing – an emerging, interdisciplinary field of study in the social sciences centering on a holistic definition of individual and societal health – to look at the impact of the arts across multiple dimensions of human life. We wanted to better understand how other sectors define and measure wellbeing and quality of life, and how arts and culture might fit into these existing frameworks. This foundational investigation led to a subsequent inquiry into the following questions:
- What are particular claims to the benefits of arts participation?
- Does the majority of available evidence support each claim?
- How strong is the quality of evidence?
What We Know
Grounding our research in the concept of wellbeing helped to shape our definition of meaningful benefits as a result of arts participation. We learned that although most wellbeing frameworks do not explicitly include arts and culture, some do. The one most closely matching Createquity’s worldview is the capability approach originally proposed by economist Amartya Sen, which frames wellbeing in the context of human beings’ freedom to make choices about how to live their lives. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s elaboration of the capability approach embraces the arts’ influence on overall wellbeing both directly and indirectly via the capabilities of “senses, imagination, and thought” and “play,” which may include active arts participation and creation, as well as observation, reflection, absorption and enjoyment of arts experiences.
Our subsequent review of research into arts and wellbeing – focusing on the benefits of the arts on a range of different wellbeing impact areas – fits into four broad areas of impact: physical and mental health, education and personal development, economic vitality, and social cohesion. Following is a list of benefits claimed for arts participation across these areas, categorized based on the strength of the evidence backing those claims.
We are highly confident that:
- Participatory arts activities help to maintain the health and quality of life of older adults. There is evidence that singing improves mental health and subjective wellbeing; taking dance classes bolsters cognition and motor skills; dancing and playing a musical instrument reduce the risk of dementia; and visual arts generate increases in self-esteem, psychological health, and social engagement.
- Arts therapies contribute to positive clinical outcomes, such as reduction in anxiety, stress, and pain for patients. Music interventions tend to dominate studies in this area, mostly characterized by passive forms of participation (e.g., listening to music).
- Arts participation in early childhood promotes social and emotional development. For example, teachers report fewer instances of shy, aggressive, and anxious behavior among preschoolers taking dance classes, and toddlers receiving music instruction demonstrate increased social cooperation with other children.
- Student participation in structured arts activities enhances cognitive abilities and social skills that support learning, such as memory, problem-solving, and communication. (While arts participation may improve academic attainment as well, any effects are fairly small. Traditional scholastic measures such as standardized tests and grades have produced mixed evidence.)
We are moderately confident that:
- Community arts activities probably contribute to healthy living habits and improved understandings of health. A few mixed-methods studies have found among participants increases in healthy eating, physical activity, positive feelings, and other areas of personal development. However, it is difficult to know if these habits were sustained over time. Even in the case of sustained arts engagement, there is mixed evidence that it reduces mortality risk in adults.
- Arts and cultural participation probably improves subjective wellbeing (self-reported happiness or life satisfaction). Studies among large population samples cite both passive and active forms of art participation as important determinants of psychological wellbeing.
- Low-income students probably benefit disproportionately from access to arts education. Benefits such as improved cognitive abilities from music participation, or improved measures of tolerance for museum attendees, tend to be higher for students from low-SES households.
We have lower levels of confidence in the arts’ contributions to social cohesion and economic vitality, based on research we reviewed. For example, participation in the arts may promote pro-social or civic behaviors like voting and volunteering, but the direction of the relationship is unclear – i.e., do pro-civic behaviors engender arts participation or vice versa, or is there is an underlying hidden value driving both behaviors? Evidence suggests that cultural participation may also contribute to economic growth through promotion of innovative workforce, and urban regeneration, but economic impact research is complicated by various confounding factors (e.g., planning policy, availability of jobs, general health of economy), making it difficult to really isolate the specific relationship and intensity of benefits.
What We Don’t Know
- In the absence of longitudinal studies, it is difficult to know the longer-term effects of arts participation. This is most true in the areas of health and early childhood education.
- The potential to make the case for the benefits of the arts suffers from a paucity of experimental and quasi-experimental designs, particularly in the areas of economic vitality and social cohesion.
- Generally, measuring effects at a community level is difficult to do when there are confounding factors. However, greater understanding of how the arts promote quality of life at the community or regional level could help to illuminate potential strategies or interventions that might work at scale to support a healthy ecosystem.
- Createquity’s investigations on the benefits of the arts have focused broadly on general effects on a general population. It is likely that there is quite a bit of variation between disciplines, between different modes of artistic participation (e.g., passive, active, solitary, communal), and between participants (comparing demographic and other differences). Research syntheses and comparative studies looking across these differences are generally lacking.
How to Use this Information
A few action items to consider:
- The potential of the arts to improve lives for older adults and those in clinical settings seems under-invested in relative to the strength of the evidence. Consider how age and health fit into your strategy for improving lives through the arts.
- Similarly, consider what proportion of your arts funding portfolio reaches very young children (pre-K and younger), as some of the strongest available evidence indicates benefits for that population.
- Invest in longitudinal studies into benefits of the arts, especially those that involve diverse population samples, varying geographies, and embrace multiple disciplines.
- Consider funding more meta-analyses that take stock of the current spate of literature already in existence. British researchers have published a few of these, but there is much more to be done, and research coming out all the time that could be added to the mix.
- Conduct studies looking at the impact of the arts in comparison to other leisure-time activities, to make effect sizes in the arts more intelligible.
- Seek ways to assess impacts of arts participation across longer time frames, and embrace more experimental study designs if possible.
- There is currently very little research on the benefits of subsidizing the arts, as opposed to the benefits of arts participation. In other words, what proportion of the benefit realized from arts programming can be specifically attributed to grants or donations with that purpose in mind?
- Be transparent in discussing methods and limitations of arts participation, to allow others to learn directly from the research experience (in other words, don’t give undue credit to the arts if there isn’t enough supporting evidence).
- Further explore hierarchies of evidence in arts research, including examples of rigorous qualitative designs.
For arts organizations:
- Foster partnerships with other sectors that might benefit from your arts organization’s work (e.g., community and civic engagement, public health, social justice), and work together to further the arts’ contributions for community-wide benefit.
- Use the evidence that is available to help guide your programming to be as impactful as possible in providing benefits to individuals in your communities.
Everything We Know about Whether and How the Arts Improve Lives (2016)
The research could still use an upgrade in many areas. But what we know so far should cheer any arts advocate.
A summary of the benefits of various arts endeavors including participatory activities, arts therapies, and arts engagement by young children and students.
(Eng)Aging with the Arts Has its Benefits (2016)
In fact, the best evidence we have of the arts’ impact is that they make older adults feel better.
Recent studies indicate that the most compelling evidence of the value of the arts revolves around improving the lives of older adults.
Are the Arts the Answer to Our TV Obsession? (2016)
Television can wreak havoc on the brain and the body. But people who watch it the most don’t seem to mind.
This article explores how, from obesity to apathy, the side effects of America’s national pastime (watching the tube) are taking their toll. What else to do?
Part of Your World: On the Arts and Wellbeing (2015)
A concept that’s been making the rounds in other fields for decades provides fresh ideas about how to think about the benefits of the arts.
This piece explains how the relationship between the arts and wellbeing could earn the former a proper seat at the table in conversations about human progress.
Capsule Review: The Impacts of Culture and Sport (2017)
What are the relationships between cultural engagement, sports participation, and social wellbeing? A recent study sheds light.
A British study examines the impact of sports and cultural participation on outcomes including measurements of health, education, civic participation, and personal wellbeing.
Capsule Review: Music, Singing, and Wellbeing (2017)
Three reports explore the effects of music on quality of life.
The UK’s What Works Centre for Wellbeing recently commissioned one of the most thorough research syntheses we’ve seen on the benefits of the arts.
A New Way to Think about Intrinsic vs. Instrumental Benefits of the Arts (2015)
Which matters more, art for art’s sake or art for people’s sake? Neither, according to a recent report.
A Philadelphia-based study reveals patterns between cultural participation, economic and geographic factors, and wellbeing among citizens.
Cover image: Hands, from Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” at Italianrenaissance.org