The platitudes are on the lips of every arts supporter, ready to be recalled at the first sign of a public hearing or potential funding cut. “The arts are essential – a necessity, not a luxury.” “The arts help kids learn.” “The arts are the foundation of the knowledge economy.” It feels good to say those things, especially if you’re someone who has spent a life in the arts. But are they actually true? Are we pulling a fast one on ourselves and our audience by saying them? Or are we doing a service to the world by spreading the good news?
Over the past half century, hundreds of researchers have spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars grappling with these questions. And while the literature still has a ways to go before we can consider the answers definitive, it is becoming clear in at least several arenas that it’s not just our imagination: arts participation really does improve lives. In particular:
- Participatory arts activities help to maintain the health and quality of life of older adults. As discussed in our previous feature, 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.)
We’ve catalogued these and other benefits in an interactive graphic we’ve created – the first of its kind – that explores the various benefits claimed for arts participation along with the strength of evidence backing those claims. See how the benefits stack up against each other at a glance, or zoom in to read what the research has to say about specific questions. (Read about our methodology here.) We recommend viewing in full-screen mode for best results.
Before we dive in further, a little context-setting is in order. The first thing to note is that what you’re going to read below is a work in progress. The literature on the effects of arts participation is vast and of highly uneven quality. To arrive at the conclusions we express here, we’ve relied heavily on existing literature reviews and meta-analyses on the topics in question, which means that any errors of interpretation or questionable judgments in those reviews are likely repeated here. Over time, we intend to get to know the underlying studies and publications and fill in gaps or make corrections as needed. In addition, new research on these topics comes out on a regular basis, and sometimes it challenges conclusions that we had previously drawn about a topic. For both of these reasons, you can expect that we will make tweaks both to the interactive and the content below as we gain access to new information going forward.
Second, it’s important to remember that the focus of this review is quite broad, and looks for general effects on a general population. It’s likely that in practice, there is quite a bit of variation between disciplines, between different modes of artistic participation, and between participants (e.g., different personality types). We can already say, for example, that music is both the most-studied intervention and the one that seems to have the most robust evidence behind it. As we get to know the literature better via the process described above, we’ll be able to identify these kinds of nuances with more precision.
Readers interested in the details behind the evidence in the article are encouraged to take a look at our capsule reviews on participatory arts for older adults, cultural arts and dementia, arts and early childhood, and arts and at-risk youth, all of which are based on in-depth literature and systematic reviews conducted by others and outline common methodological shortcomings and recommendations for future research. Of particular note is our capsule review on the Cultural Value Project (CVP), which shares the results of the UK-based Arts and Humanities Research Council’s three-year investigation into the value of culture. While the full bibliography to this article is far more extensive, our investigation relied heavily on the above sources.
Feelin’ Good: Physical and Mental Health
Of the four broad areas of arts impact that we identified in our review, the most robust research has taken place in the areas of education and personal development and physical and mental health. In fact, the evidence underlying the benefits of the arts for older adults is so compelling that we decided to write a whole separate article about it. A variety of participatory arts activities improve older adults’ mental and physical health, and in some cases, lessen the likelihood of developing dementia later in life. For instance, weekly singing has been shown to decrease anxiety and depression; weekly dance has been shown to improve cognition and attention, posture and balance, and hand and motor skills; and lifelong engagement with music, particularly playing an instrument, is correlated with improved memory among older adults. The arts also play a role in improving the overall quality of life for older adults more generally, such as attitudes toward social life.
While this was some of the most compelling evidence uncovered by our review, older adults aren’t the only beneficiaries. Arts therapies have been shown to improve clinical outcomes among patients. For example, a 2004 review of more than 400 pieces of literature exploring the arts’ and humanities’ relationship to healthcare and the arts’ effects on health identified a number of impacts for arts therapies. This includes visual art and music helping to reduce anxiety and depression among cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, an association between music and reduction in anxiety and blood pressure in cardiovascular care, and reduction in use of pain medicine following surgery. Music tends to dominate these studies, with a generally positive effect on anxiety, stress, and pain reduction among patients. Another strain of studies has explored the related claim that visual art and design may help to improve the quality of healthcare settings, thus improving patient satisfaction and clinical outcomes. While the methodological quality of the evidence in this area is considerably weaker than that described above, initial results support the claim..
The arts may also generate health impacts beyond dedicated healthcare settings. We found that community arts activities probably contribute to healthy living habits and improved understanding of health. Using a mixed-methods approach that included a community-randomized design, an evaluation of 100 small participatory arts projects across impoverished parts of London found increases among participants in healthy eating, physical activity, and positive feelings. Similarly, a 2003 mixed-methods evaluation of the Wrekenton Lanterns Project, a community arts project drawing attention to coronary heart disease, suggested that arts activities contributed to healthy personal development, including healthy eating and mothering, mental health improvements, and increased absorption of health information. In the absence of longitudinal studies, however, it is difficult to know if participants sustained these habits over time.
The strongest and most consistent evidence for the health impacts of the arts relate specifically to mental health: in particular, reductions in depression and anxiety. It should come as no surprise, then, that arts participation is associated with subjective wellbeing, or one’s perceived quality of life. Over the past several decades, growing scholarship on wellbeing has sought to address just how well a person thinks they’re doing, with ongoing development of indicator systems that, in more recent years, have begun to incorporate measures related to arts, culture, and creativity. Createquity has been interested in the connection between arts participation and subjective wellbeing for some time. In our own analysis of data from the 2012 General Social Survey, we found no relationship between having attended an exhibit or performance in the past year and one’s satisfaction with life. However, a subsequent research spotlight revealed that among a large sample of Americans, more active forms of cultural participation including playing a musical instrument, gardening, and craft-making were positively associated with life satisfaction.
Our current review of the literature suggests that while causal attribution remains difficult to pin down, arts and cultural participation probably improves self-reported happiness or life satisfaction. A 2010 study of 1,500 randomly selected Italians analyzed two data sets on general wellbeing and cultural participation, yielding surprising results: cultural experiences – in this instance, passive modes of participation such as cinema, theatre, concert, and museum going – were the second most important determinant of psychological wellbeing, second only to the incidence of diseases, and ranking above factors like job, income, and education. And while not all arts participants are necessarily “doing well,” there is some evidence that unhappy people might be worse off it not for their cultural activities. For instance, a 2008 study of 1,124 choral singers in England, Germany, and Australia found that among respondents who scored on the lowest third of the psychological wellbeing scale, singing in a choir had a significant impact on their ability to cope with physical and mental health issues, among other personal challenges. There is some work being done to explore these issues in the US, but existing data sets on wellbeing and arts participation are not as easy to cross-reference. For instance, a 2014 study found an association between arts participation and wellbeing, but the study design made it difficult to determine if it was indeed attributed to arts participation and not other factors.
From Jungle Gyms to Jobs: Education and Personal Development
Although some of the strongest evidence we’ve come across speaks to the value of participatory arts for older adults, one doesn’t have to be a senior citizen, or for that matter even an adult at all, to benefit. On balance, the evidence suggests that the impact of arts and culture on psychological wellbeing is consistent across the lifespan, as far back even as early childhood.
A recent NEA literature review found ample evidence that arts participation in early childhood (birth to eight years) promotes social and emotional development. For example, a 2013 randomized controlled trial of 102 toddlers found that those participating in classroom-based music education were more likely to increase their level of social cooperation, interaction, and independence (as reported by their teachers) than a control group that did not receive a music education program. Similarly, a 2006 study of 40 preschoolers found that those that met with a dance group for eight weeks had stronger improvements in social skills and showed noticeable reductions in shy, anxious and aggressive behavior compared to a control group.
For slightly older kids, student participation in structured arts activities enhances cognitive abilities and social skills that support learning (e.g., memory, problem-solving, and communication). A 2010 systematic review of the Culture and Sport Evidence (CASE) database in the UK concluded that participation in “structured arts activities” could increase young people’s performance on a range of indicators of cognitive and social ability. Perhaps even more importantly, there is good reason to believe that arts education programs are disproportionately impactful for lower-income children. The NEA literature review on early childhood mentioned above includes a Head Start arts education experiment with 88 preschoolers from low socioeconomic status families. Those who participated in music activities showed improved cognitive abilities and increased ability to pay attention than children in the control group that received regular Head Start instruction. According to the NEA literature review, other specific benefits to lower-income youth include increases in confidence, student behavior and social skills. These findings are consistent with those from the well-known randomized controlled trial to measure the impact of field trips to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Benefits such as enhanced critical thinking skills and improved measures of tolerance were two or three times higher for children attending schools in rural areas or that served predominantly low-income households.
An earlier systematic literature review of 188 studies, the landmark 2001 Reviewing Education and the Arts Project (REAP) study, offers another perspective on the evidence base for non-arts academic outcomes of arts education. After comparing 275 effect sizes across groups of comparable studies, the researchers found strong causal evidence for the impact of music listening on spatial-temporal reasoning; learning to play music on spatial reasoning; and classroom drama instruction on verbal skills. However, the evidence was weaker in several other areas, including most effects on reading and math performance.
Indeed, one puzzle embedded in the extensive literature on arts education is how little the aforementioned benefits to learning and cognitive capabilities seem to translate to traditional measures of academic attainment such as standardized tests. Evidence from a wide body of literature suggests that even if there is a positive effect, it is so small as to be practically meaningless. The CASE systematic review cited above found that overall, participation in structured arts activities only improved attainment in high-school-aged students (as measured by standardized tests) by one to two percent. Similarly, a review from the Education Endowment Foundation in the UK concluded that arts participation had “positive but low” effects on academic learning in English, math, and science.
A major drawback within this literature is a lack of longitudinal studies. Short-term experimental designs that assign some students to an arts program and others to a control group are useful for isolating the effects of that particular program, but they usually only measure temporary effects on participants. Both the NEA’s early childhood literature review and the Cultural Value Project note the dearth of research that might isolate the long-term effects of arts participation in childhood over a lifetime.
Arts as Economic Engine, Sort of
In contrast to the health and educational literature described above, research on the economic and social impacts of the arts does not paint as straightforward a picture of benefit to society. In some cases this is because the available research simply is not very robust (unsurprising, given that measuring effects at a community level is far more difficult than doing so at an individual level); in others, it is because the evidence is conflicting, or the implications of it unclear.
Arguably the most convincing case to be made here is that cultural assets (organizations, venues, etc.) probably contribute to higher real estate values at a neighborhood level, but this insight is complicated by questions around the potential negative impacts of gentrification. For instance, a 2013 study on how cultural districts reshape neighborhoods found evidence that cultural districts “have significant impacts on property values,” although the evidence of effects on poverty, education, and families was weaker. A 2006 case study of MASS MoCA and its surrounding neighborhood in rural Massachusetts found significant increases in property values following the opening of the contemporary art museum. Similarly, between 2006 and 2008, a multi-pronged investigation by Mark Stern and Susan Seifert’s Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) revealed a relationship between concentrated cultural assets and rising real estate values. It remains unclear, however, whether this effect generates benefits for existing, non-property-owning residents, like rising income levels or job prospects, or alternatively, brings potential harm through disruption of existing population dynamics. Perhaps surprisingly, there is a general lack of evidence that the arts contribute to concrete negative neighborhood revitalization impacts like displacement, but little attention has been devoted to “fuzzier” outcomes like feeling a loss of ownership.
Another common type of research in cultural economics is the much-touted (and much-criticized) economic impact study. If you work in the arts, chances are you’ve seen a press release at some point in the past decade announcing that the arts generate some large dollar amount in revenue and impressive number of jobs in your community. Claims of this nature may be true in a literal sense, but are usually far less meaningful than they first appear. Sure, the arts industry creates jobs, but so does literally every other industry. The more relevant question is this: “do the arts spur spending in the economy that wouldn’t have happened otherwise?” Evidence for that more ambitious proposal is mixed. For example, a review of 36 studies by the UK-based What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth found that the effects of large-scale facilities on local employment are limited at best; however, the review included both cultural and sports facilities, and was heavily weighted toward the latter.
Speaking of employment, one of the few studies that examines the longer-term effects of arts and cultural participation suggests that cultural participation may contribute to capacity for innovation within the workforce. In an analysis of the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Laura Niemi compared more than 7,000 Americans’ history of arts participation as children to their career history as adults. Niemi found a strong association between interest in the visual arts in adolescence and later innovation and entrepreneurship, which held true even when controlling for personality traits associated with innovation (like a willingness to take risks) and educational attainment. Family income, however, was not tested as a control factor.
If the arts help produce more innovative individuals, it stands to reason that the presence of arts and cultural activities and creative industries in a region may contribute to increased productivity and innovation in other industries in that region. For example, a 2015 empirical study of 2,000 creative enterprises in Austria found evidence to support three theories for how creative industries affect an economy’s overall innovation performance: being a major source of innovative ideas, products and services; offering services that lend themselves to innovative activities in other enterprises; and using new technologies to encourage further development in tech production. Do creative industries similarly make a region wealthier? Maybe: a 2011 study examining the relationship between manufacturing, service, and creative industry agglomerations and the wealth of 250 European regions found that for every percent increase in employment in the creative industries, there is a little over a half-percent increase in GDP. As with much of this literature, though, including that seeking to test Richard Florida’s hypothesis that creative industries draw talented workers and employers to a region and increase wealth that way, causation and correlation are difficult to tease out.
Come Together: On the Arts and Social Cohesion
The state of the evidence is even muddier when it comes to the impact of the arts on the social fabric between and among communities. As with economic vitality, evidence in this arena suffers from a lack of experimental and quasi-experimental designs that would help us better understand the social benefits of the arts. However, much of the difficulty is also rooted in the theoretical complexities that complicate coming to a shared definition of terms in this area. Social benefits of the arts have been described by many names, including social capital, social wellbeing, social inclusion, arts for social change, and more. We even struggled with what label to use to describe benefits in this area, and consider “social cohesion” to be a preliminary designation.
One of the better-studied research topics in this area is the relationship between participation in the arts and pro-social or civic behaviors like voting, volunteering, or attending community meetings. A 2014 Arts Council England evidence review found “growing evidence that children and young people’s engagement with arts and culture has a knock-on impact on their wider social and civic participation.” More specifically, based on British and American systematic reviews, high school students who participate in the arts “are twice as likely to volunteer than those that don’t…and 20 percent more likely to vote as young adults.” However, the major problem with research of this nature is that it does not test the very plausible counter-hypothesis that a common personality trait or set of values drives both arts engagement and civic behavior. Experimental work in this area would be extremely valuable for answering that question.
What about the relationship between arts assets and indicators of social wellbeing at a neighborhood level? The best work on this front has been conducted by SIAP’s Stern and Seifert, who attempted in a recent project to analyze multiple dimensions of economic and social wellbeing in Philadelphia. Their investigation, however, failed to find correlations between cultural assets and most indicators of social wellbeing after controlling for race and economic vitality, casting significant doubt on this effect.
Can the arts help increase trust and understanding between people of different backgrounds through dialogue or creating spaces for storytelling? In the United States, Animating Democracy and SIAP have both conducted qualitative and descriptive research into this phenomenon. However, the literature is almost entirely bereft of control groups, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions. One of the few exceptions is the aforementioned Crystal Bridges study on field trip attendance, which reported an increase in tolerance and “historical empathy” among students who attended the museum compared to students who didn’t. It’s difficult to know, however, how meaningful the proxy measure used in this study is in practice. Furthermore, one of the problems for this area of research is that it seemingly matters a lot what messages are being communicated through the artwork when it comes to building bridges across social divides, complicating attempts like this one to assess in general terms whether this type of intervention “works.”
What It All Adds Up To
Last year, Createquity explored the literature on wellbeing and quality of life in general, and noted that culture is often missing from frameworks that seek to capture a holistic definition of wellbeing. This investigation, and the ongoing work that will flow from it, demonstrates how and where the arts fit most naturally into such a framework.
- Arts participation contributes directly to quality of life by increasing self-reported happiness and life satisfaction. This is probably the case for the population in general, and is almost certainly true for the subset of that population that pursues sustained engagement in arts activities over time. In addition, robust effects of arts participation on reducing anxiety and depression have been demonstrated for people in healthcare settings and older adults, two potentially vulnerable populations. This research validates Createquity’s thematic focus on ensuring equitable access to opportunities to participate in the arts across society as a whole.
- Arts participation contributes indirectly to wellbeing via, at a minimum, its effects on education and personal development (particularly the development of emotional and social skills in early childhood, and the development of cognitive capabilities and communication skills in later childhood), and physical health (particularly in healthcare settings). Other indirect effects to wellbeing may exist as well, but the research is not yet at a place where these can be demonstrated conclusively.
This review likewise highlights where additional investments in research would be especially productive. Experimental and quasi-experimental designs are extremely rare in the research on the economic and social impacts of the arts; initiatives to fill this gap, though likely expensive and difficult to implement, would prove enormously helpful in resolving many of the causation vs. correlation conundrums that currently pervade this literature. Even in the health and education areas where these techniques are more common, however, there remains considerable room for further research and greater methodological ambition. There is a strong need in these areas for studies that examine the effects of arts participation over a long period of time, and for randomized controlled trials that use larger sample sizes.
As stated in the beginning of this article, both the research literature itself and our understanding of it are works in progress. We will continue to update and adjust the infographic describing benefits as new research comes to light in the months and years to come. As we learn more about how the arts benefit lives, the knowledge will inform our ongoing inquiry into the most important issues in the arts and what we can do about them.