Can Public Art Play a Role in Public Health?

Posted by Sara Ansell, Sep 23, 2013 0 comments

Sara Ansell Sara Ansell


What is the Porch Light Program? Does art have the power to heal? The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program thinks it does. Through the Mural Arts Porch Light Program, a partnership with the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS), we mine the social power of art to not only address a community’s physical environment but ultimately the community’s health. The program strives to catalyze positive changes in the community, improve the physical environment, create opportunities for social connectedness, develop skills to enhance resilience and recovery, promote community and social inclusion, shed light on challenges faced by those with behavioral health issues, reduce stigma, and encourage empathy. Through participatory public art, we have tackled issues such as trauma, faith and spirituality, homelessness, immigration, war, and community violence. The Porch Light Program builds a team of artists, service providers, program participants, and other community and city-wide stakeholders to collaborate on a transformative public art project over the course of a year. During that year, artists are embedded within a provider agency and work closely with service recipients, staff, and the surrounding community. Through the weekly workshops, community meetings, and Open Studios, the artists forge meaningful relationships and explore the issues most pressing to the community. After months of dialogue, brainstorming, and art activities, the artists delve into the mural creation process with program participants. The participants help design the mural and then move on to the most exciting phase of the work: painting the mural. At the end of a program year, we celebrate and honor the completed mural at a highly anticipated “Mural Dedication Ceremony.” Through this collaborative creative process, individuals and communities are not simply beneficiaries of public art or recipients of treatment, but co-creators of the work as they learn new skills, gain knowledge among peers and community members, and play an active role in improving their physical environment. National foundations, health leaders from across the country, and universities are looking at the Porch Light Program closely as an example of progressive public health promotion: the consideration that our physical and social ecosystem impacts our health as much as a visit to the doctor.

Evaluating Porch Light Essential to the Porch Light Program is the evaluation research study currently underway.  The study uses a community-based participatory research approach to examine the impact of the Porch Light Program on various individual and community outcomes.  The research is directed by Dr. Jacob K. Tebes, a Professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, and involves both quantitative and qualitative assessments that include: tracking of program activities, individual interviews with participants at three points in time, extensive community interviews of individuals in distressed neighborhoods, systematic community observations, tracking of archival service data, and intensive case studies. The research will be completed next summer and provide a new contribution of the impact of participatory public art on public health. Qualitative findings from the evaluation study are promising.  At the individual level, participants have described four types of benefits that they have derived from the program:

  1. An opportunity for developing new friendships,
  2. An enhanced sense of their self-esteem and personal capacity
  3. A desire to give back to their community and neighborhood
  4. An increase sense of hope in the future

As one mural participant shared: “In mural arts we have everyone coming together to help each other. Other people help me and I try to help others here, and to send a message that we can get everything together and make this a better city. At least we can try.” At the provider level, Porch Light has influenced how behavioral health agencies participating in the project can address mental health and substance use needs in more engaging and innovative ways.  Participating agencies now more directly see the value and impact of community-based interventions to foster hope and community connection.  As one provider noted, “The Mural Arts Program has given our clients a sense of belonging, that they are a part of the community and are connected to it.” At the community level, the program has helped the larger system of behavioral health agencies forge positive collaboration with a wide range of agencies and service residents that can benefit those receiving services while also improving the distressed neighborhoods in which those services are often located. Honing the Porch Light Model Over the past two years, this rigorous evaluation has helped us hone our model of participatory public art to inspire Mural Arts to document lessons learned and adapt accordingly. Through our work in communities, we have learned a great deal about  how to recruit program participants more effectively, create protocols and structures that facilitate consistent communication with sites and staff, efficiently coordinate meaningful engagement opportunities for community members and program participants, craft weekly workshop curricula that is focused on participant’s lived experiences, and empower stakeholders to shape the public art in a way that is meaningful and authentic to them. Mural Arts has also learned important lessons about effective community partnerships. We work closely with the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services to create a clear set of criteria for choosing new partners; criteria that are based on need, capacity, and commitment.  Determining these criteria has allowed us to help cultivate even stronger relationships with service providers and community partners. The Future of Porch Light Recently, Mural Arts and DBHIDS have focused on tracking program implementation with an eye towards replicating this model beyond Philadelphia. We recognize that our collective mural-making processes can be a powerful tool for generating dialogue, building relationships, empowering communities, improving health, and sparking revitalization. Through our partnership with Yale, we have been able to critically assess our work and will be developing a replication manual that can guide others in this work.  It is our hope Porch Light will not only be a welcome beacon in Philadelphia, but also one that can inspire others in their community to effect positive change through art to promote healthy communities. Thank you to Dr. Jacob Tebes and Dr. Samantha Matlin for their assistance with this blog post.

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