Public Art – An Unexpected Approach to Improving Health

Posted by Sara Ansell, Sep 03, 2014 0 comments

Sara Ansell Sara Ansell

My path to becoming an arts administrator is a tad unorthodox. My advanced degree is in social policy analysis and my previous professional experience is that of a public health researcher. In fact, I’m not sure I identify solely as an arts administrator. Or a policy analyst. Or a public health researcher. Instead, the world I inhabit is that of someone passionate about connecting with individuals and communities, in a tangible and meaningful way, to help address the deeply entrenched health-related challenges they face every day. Threaded throughout my winding journey to the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program is a core belief that we all live within a layered reality – one defined by our individual traits and behavior, our social relationships to friends, family, and neighbors, our living and working conditions including the physical environment around us, and the economic, political, and social policies and systems that impact us locally, nationally, and globally. The ecosystem in which we all interact and navigate is complex and impacts our health in very real ways. The extent to which each layer of our reality hinders and supports us as we strive for well-being varies for each of us.

In each phase of my academic and professional life, my work has intersected with multiple pieces of the ecosystem around us. In graduate school, I researched the local food environment and how it impacted women and children on food assistance after a national food assistance program altered their policies. I spent time with public housing residents and learned how federal housing policies played out in specific Philadelphia communities and families in an effort to inform local housing policy shifts. During my time as a health policy analyst, I explored the impact of national health programs on our utilization of services and the relationship between community-based programs and national trends such as obesity and teen pregnancy. Through each twist and turn, I have remained interested in how each layer of the ecosystem we inhabit interacts with another. How do national programs play out at the individual level? How do community-based efforts inform a more global policy? What interventions are most meaningful to individuals seeking increased quality of life and to what extent are they effective in improving the living conditions around that individual? I was incredibly fortunate to enter the world of public art as I grappled with these questions. In 2011, I was invited to direct efforts to address the challenging issue of behavioral health through public art as the Philadelphia Mural Arts Porch Light Program Director.

The Porch Light Program, a collaboration with the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, works closely with communities to uplift public art as an expression of community resilience and a vehicle of personal and community healing. We create murals that focus specifically on mental health and substance use, as well as other issues that affect our mental health including faith and spirituality, homelessness, trauma, immigration, war and community safety and tensions. The Porch Light Program builds a team of artists, service providers, program participants, community members, and city-wide stakeholders to collaborate on a transformative public art project. 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.

photo credit is © 2013 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program/James Burns. Photo by Steve Weinik. photo credit is © 2013 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program/James Burns. Photo by Steve Weinik.

While one might assume that in my current role as a public arts administrator, my day to day activities are firmly rooted within the public health realm. In fact, as Porch Light Program Director I work closely with public health leaders in Philadelphia government, social scientists from multiple universities, fellow program directors at various Philadelphia non-profits, artists, behavioral health practitioners, recipients of social and behavioral health services, and communities facing significant health-related challenges. One of my most exciting tasks as Director of the Porch Light Program is to work closely with Yale School of Medicine as we try to answer the questions “Does participatory public art impact our individual and community health and to what extent?” Yale’s groundbreaking community-based research includes a longitudinal quasi-experimental design that intends to assess impact at the individual level, organizational level, and community level. The Yale University research team is largely leading the data collection and analysis portion of the study. I inhabit a middle ground between the social scientists, the practitioners of the work (artists and health service providers), and policy makers (city and state officials). In addition to managing the day-to-day responsibilities of the Porch Light Program, my role is to translate the research findings for community members, practitioners, and policy makers, incorporate the findings into practice, and more globally inform and help shape health policies through writing and speaking.

While I never would have guessed that I would end up in the field of public art, I am astounded at how aligned this work is to my previous experience in the policy and research world. The Mural Arts Porch Light Program leverages the unusual intervention of participatory public art to impact lives, communities, and the built environment with a clear focus on health outcomes. As time passes, and I become more seasoned in the public art field, I am also gaining deep appreciation for the inherent and unique power of this medium. Unlike more traditional health-related interventions, our work captures and embodies the voices of community members and lifts them up for the world to take in with a magnitude unlike anything I’ve seen. I have never been so moved as I have been during our mural dedication ceremonies where the challenging and inspiring reflections of participants are writ large, woven together by a talented artist, and painted brush stroke by brush stroke by Philadelphians across the city. It is this aspect of the work that leaves me feeling humble and honored to call the public art field my profession.


The Emerging Leaders in Public Art Blog Salon is generously sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University.

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