Harnessing the Healing Power of the Arts

An Introduction by NEA Chair Jackson
A large group of people pose for a photo in front of a wall with a collage of photos. Next to them is a bonsai.

NEA Chair Jackson with National Council on the Arts members along with Ashé Cultural Arts Center staff and community health workers in New Orleans, Louisiana, June 2023. Photo by Kasimu Harris

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has long recognized the potential of the arts to strengthen communities and improve health outcomes. Through our grantmaking programs and national initiatives, the NEA provides vital support to organizations that rely on the arts to help enhance community well-being, empowering artists and communities alike, all the while fostering a symbiotic relationship where creativity can thrive and health can flourish.

I have talked about how unleashing the full power of art requires not existing only in isolation or in a bubble. It requires animating work at the intersections of arts and education, community development, climate, and more, including work at the intersection with health and well-being. Helping to animate the full power of the arts requires bolstering what I call an arts-infused civic infrastructure—art (defined expansively) woven into the relationships and mechanisms we rely on to care for each other.

The NEA is a national resource for creating and strengthening healthy arts ecosystems that contribute to building healthy communities where all people can thrive—where people can lead artful lives and where the important work happening at the intersections of the arts and other fields of policy and practice is advanced. We do this through our work with nonprofit arts organizations, local arts agencies, state arts agencies, and regional arts organizations, and through our collaborations with other federal agencies, which we are growing and strengthening.

For more than a decade, we have been partnering with the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs on the initiative Creative Forces®: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, which seeks to improve the health, well-being, and quality of life for military and veteran populations exposed to trauma, as well as their families and caregivers, through creative arts therapies and community arts engagement activities. In 2021, we were involved in a partnership with the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) and the CDC Foundation to launch an initiative that engaged artists and arts organizations to promote COVID vaccine readiness in their communities. As a direct result, with funding from the CDC, the CDC Foundation awarded grants to 30 organizations nationwide to support these efforts. Working alongside the Department of Health and Human Services, the Arts Endowment is planning to convene an Interagency Working Group on Arts, Health, and Civic Infrastructure. This collaborative effort fosters exchanges of insights and information among federal agencies and serves as a catalyst and resource for new and existing work harnessing the power of arts and culture to advance health equity and create resilient communities.

In addition to these growing federal partnerships, the NEA is looking to deepen our understanding of the science behind the arts and healing. The NEA's Office of Research & Analysis (ORA) commissions clinical research through our research grants and NEA Research Labs on the arts’ ability to help treat chronic pain, improve longitudinal health outcomes in the general population, help delay cognitive decline among older adults, and to foster social and emotional development in early childhood. Recognizing the potential of music to heal and connect, the NEA’s Music department and ORA have partnered with the University of California, San Francisco, in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health, the Kennedy Center, and celebrated soprano Renée Fleming, to establish the Sound Health Network. This pioneering collaboration explores the impact of music on brain health and well-being, paving the way for innovative treatments and interventions.

As our nation emerges from the devastating impact of a global pandemic, the role of the arts in healing and rebuilding has never been more crucial. Societal movements addressing social inequality, and the growing concern for social and environmental determinants of health outcomes, present a unique prism through which the arts can be channeled to bridge gaps and foster well-being.

The arts community, already grappling with immense challenges, requires support and opportunities to contribute to the collective healing process. Now, more than ever, we need to attend to the health of the arts sector and recognize that its health has implications for the well-being and health of our nation.

As I noted in my discussion on the Federal Plan for Equitable Long-Term Recovery and Resilience with Rear Admiral Paul Reed, director of HHS’s Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: “There are many ways in which the arts play a critical role in our ability to survive something like a pandemic. Some of those ways have to do with our personal well-being, and some of them have to do with our ability to show up as part of a collective and care for each other. If you think of how the arts help us make sense of the world, that’s important during a time when everything is turned upside down.”

A man and woman are seated across from each other in a studio being filmed.

NEA Chair Jackson in discussion with Rear Admiral Paul Reed, director of HHS’s Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, in March 2023. NEA File Photo

A framework I have used for a few years now, as I have tried to boil down the myriad ways that the arts intersect with a number of different fields, including health, is that the arts are crucial to helping us reframe—see things differently and become available to paradigm shift, retool—expand or change the ways in which we have gone about addressing challenges, and actually do the work of repair—the work of mending, healing, and growing anew.

The stories in this issue provide examples of this framework. In New Orleans, the Ashé Cultural Arts Center is creating opportunities for community wellness-focused artists and cultural workers—what the center’s chief equity officer, Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes, calls the community’s “most trusted messengers”—to promote health and wellness resources and education, with the goal of increasing life expectancy in Black neighborhoods. In June, during our National Council on the Arts meeting in New Orleans, I was able to meet in person with some of these messengers and hear their stories about how they are building trust and connections in their community as they pursue their arts practices. I also had a chance to meet with the staff at LA Opera during their annual Los Angeles County Arts and Health Week Summit and learn about their Connects initiative, featured in this issue, through which the company offers health-related activities and resources in the community. Also featured is Joseph Allen, associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who talks about the need to retool the infrastructure of theaters to make them healthier and safer for audiences.

This issue also looks at NEA Our Town grantee Fort Apache Heritage Foundation, which is planning to renovate a former Army fort and adjacent Native American boarding school and repurpose the sites into a place of rejuvenation, reconnection, and healing. We also look at Accent Pontiac, which relied on musical education to help address some of the mental health problems students experienced due to the COVID pandemic. And Brushwood Center, a nonprofit that is striving to improve health equity and ecological wellness, received a Creative Forces Community Engagement grant to expand its At Ease: Art and Nature for Veterans programming to serve more veterans, as well as active-duty personnel at Naval Station Great Lakes.

As we navigate the challenges of our time, let us embrace the healing power of the arts to cultivate greater social cohesion, health equity, and community well-being. And while I have your attention—here is some wellness advice from me to you: go to a concert, a play, or an art-based community outing. You will likely leave feeling renewed, recharged, and reconnected. Our ability to live artful lives is essential to advancing our full humanity and our health and wellness as a nation.