Human beings have always created and enjoyed art, and research shows this is about more than just pleasure — it’s about health.
More than 133 million American adults attended a live arts event in 2018. A nearly equivalent number created artworks of their own, or performed or practiced their own art. Perhaps you’re one of them. Or say you’re in the large majority of Americans (about 74 percent) who used digital media to watch or listen to art performances, programs, or exhibits. Still, how often do you — how often does anyone — pause to consider the arts’ measurable impacts on individuals and society at large?
On some primal level, we all identify with the arts’ transformative powers. Americans from all backgrounds can profit from understanding and valuing the arts’ tangible benefits, for multiple sectors of the economy, for communities of different sizes and geographies, and for health and human development.
Arts are good for the soul
For example, look at the positive effect arts have on children’s well-being.
In 2019, research found that fourth and fifth graders from disadvantaged backgrounds who attended arts field trips at a multi-arts facility in Atlanta showed fewer disciplinary infractions and greater levels of tolerance, social perspective-taking, and conscientiousness than similar students who did not experience such events. This research was supported by an Arts Endowment grant to researchers at the University of Arkansas.
Based on an analysis of more than 31,000 Miami preschool children, who were followed through sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, students who took an arts elective (music, dance, drama, or visual art) in middle school were shown to have significantly higher GPAs in math and reading scores than students who did not take an arts elective — even after the researchers controlled for other factors. For this study, George Mason University researchers were supported by an Arts Endowment grant.
Then, in a Houston study of more than 10,500 students from fourth to eighth grade, students from schools that had been randomly assigned to take part in an arts education initiative had fewer disciplinary infractions than did students who had not participated. They also showed better writing scores and higher rates of “compassion,” as measured by psychometrics. Texas A&M University received an Arts Endowment grant to conduct the study.
And the National Endowment for the Arts is not alone in valuing the need and reach of data. Last fall, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced an initial investment of $20 million over five years to advance biomedical and behavioral research on music’s role in health and healing. Cosponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and run by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (and the celebrated soprano Renée Fleming), this funding initiative, called “Sound Health,” seeks to build and promote public awareness about music’s relationship to neuroscience, health, and wellness. Projects currently under way because of this support include “Sing for your Saunter: Using Self-Generated Rhythmic Cues to Enhance Gait in Parkinson’s,” “Effects of Music Based Intervention (MBI) on Neurodevelopment and Pain Response in Preterm Infants,” and “Evaluating the Impact of Singing Interventions on Markers of Cardiovascular Health in Older Patients with Cardiovascular Disease.”
More recently, teams from the Arts Endowment and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) co-authored and published a journal article titled, “Creating Activity-Friendly Communities: Exploring the Intersection of Public Health and the Arts.” This year, with input from Task Force members, the Arts Endowment will produce a research report about the arts’ potential benefits for pain management and the prevention and treatment of substance abuse disorders. An evidence-based review, the report will offer valuable insights to health practitioners, arts organizations, funders, and policymakers on whether arts programs or therapies can be used to combat the opioid epidemic.
Apart from working with government partners to catalyze research about the arts’ value and impact, the Arts Endowment oversees a portfolio of research awards that finance studies on various arts-related topics. A special initiative of the agency is the creation of several transdisciplinary research teams around the country who can examine the arts’ contributions to three broad fields of endeavor: health and social and emotional well-being; creativity, cognition, and learning; and civic and corporate entrepreneurship and innovation.
These research teams, called “Research Labs,” are typically housed at major academic research institutions. They partner with artists and arts organizations around multiyear research agendas. Drexel University, for example, is looking at the efficacy of creative arts therapies in treating chronic stress, including conditions related to pediatric cancer and post-surgical pain. Creative arts therapies are also a subject of study at the University of Colorado Denver, which is exploring their ability to boost resilience in critical care health professionals.
Elsewhere, Vanderbilt University Medical Center is investigating the ability of a music program to improve social and emotional outcomes for children with and without Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and for their parents. George Mason University is learning how arts education can enrich the lives of a large group of low-income, ethnically diverse high school students. Texas Tech University is developing and testing a visual art-based app as a rehabilitative tool for stroke survivors with aphasia. University of California San Francisco is identifying the neural substrates of creativity by scanning the brains of master improvisers in jazz and stand-up comedy. And Indiana University is analyzing data from crowdfunding platforms to glean insights on how artists constantly adjust and readjust to new economic realities.
So, the next time you take part in an arts activity, enjoy what’s happening on the main stage, but know there is also a world of science and data flourishing behind the scenes.