The Impact of Arts and Culture in Public Health

Article Written by Michael Rosenberg with content provided by Carolyn Lewenberg


IMG_7103_crop_edit.jpgArt and culture implemented in community spaces through public art and cultural events can have a positive impact on community health in multiple ways. On Monday, April 23, a discussion about Art and Public Health wrapped up the third and final installment of a three-part Art and Culture Discussion Series co-hosted by the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC). Designed to explore how public art can address a range of planning goals and objectives related to green infrastructure, community building, economic development, and public health, this series also aimed to build cohesion among artists, arts administrators, and municipal planners.

MAPC Arts and Culture Planner Annis Sengupta started off the event with an overview of the discussion series and the work of MAPC’s Arts and Culture Division. Annis then introduced MAPC Public Health Planner Heidi Stucker, who dived deeper into what Public Health can mean beyond the realm of healthcare. To spark understanding of the connections between public health and art, Stucker led an activity where she asked participants to point out areas where they notice public health in the graphic display she showed of the new murals from Lynn, MA. In one mural inspired by the word “Love,” the group responded that the art made them think of “exercise, being outside, stress relief, socializing, and positive messages.” This exercise was continued with several other photos. After the brainstorming, Stucker projected an interesting graphic about the elements that influence human health:

One of the key points illustrated by the graphic is the finding that the social, environmental, and behavioral factors that make up 60% of a person’s health is affected by place and circumstance; art and culture also have a direct impact on people’s experience of place. This parallel was highlighted in the Lynn mural activity, where participants observed the positive affect of art in public places on the daily health of people.

IMG_7128_edit.jpgAfter spotlighting Art and Public Health, MAPC’s Artist in Residence, Carolyn Lewenberg, introduced guest speakers from Providence, Rhode Island who were involved with Sowing Place, a Cross-Sector collaboration that address challenges in food, economic development, health, and art located in the West End and Upper South Providence neighborhoods. We welcomed Gina Rodriguez, Cultural Affairs Manager from the Department of Art, Culture + Tourism (ACT), who was instrumental in helping the City secure Kresge FreshLo funds for the Sowing Place project; Valerie Tutson, Director of Rhode Island Black Storytellers, an artist facilitator for Illuminating Trinity (a previous ACT project), and a member of the statewide Arts and Health Advisory Group; and Vatic Kuumba, a poet, theatre artist, and artist facilitator for the Sowing Place.

To begin, Valerie Tutson passed a song to the group by singing it in Chichewa, the same way that it was passed to her by a friend. Tutson then had the group learn the song and sing it to one another. Translated, the song means “I have seen you and I greet you with respect.”  As artists, arts administrators and planners filled the room, this exercise set an understanding of mutual respect in the room, and began to unpack the complexities of community engaged arts and culture designed to improve communities and health outcomes.IMG_7123_edit.jpg

Moderator Carolyn Lewenberg led the panel to explore how the Sowing Place started, its challenges, and how it was/will be implemented. The Sowing Place was founded when the City of Providence was awarded a grant from the Kresge Foundation. The grant, Fresh, Local & Equitable: Food as a Creative Platform for Neighborhood Revitalization (FreshLo) aims to design neighborhood-scale projects demonstrating creative, cross-sector visions of food-oriented development. Using the first round of funding for the planning phase, the City of Providence acted as a conduit for the grant money, paying it entirely out to the partner organizations involved. Being Providence’s most culturally diverse neighborhoods, the West End and Upper South Providence were best for this type of intervention. ACT found partners active in the community and invited them to an envisioning and planning brainstorm for the Sowing Place. What resulted was a plan for a cross-sector, multi-pronged approach that included a community garden with local farmers, a cross-cultural market featuring art instillations and programing, plus a potential scope for food preparation and community building through food. The goal is to increase quality of life, access to fresh food and overall health and wellness of residents. The project is now heading to the implementation phase, and it is exciting to see the goals executed in these neighborhoods of Providence.

Vatic Kuumba closed the discussion with two poems. The first poem engaged the group from beginning to end and stimulated thoughts about cops, guns, and police racial discrimination in society. The second poem challenged the group through an anecdote about when students said that Kuumba reminded them of their dad. This provoked the group to think about their own interpersonal relationships and connections with others, tying the whole event together by encouraging participants to examine the different legs of society that contribute to their overall health.

To see more information on Sowing Place, go to the Providence Department of Arts, Culture, and Tourism website available here.

The first event in NEFA and MAPC’s three-part Art and Culture Discussion Series, Community Building and Economic Development through Art, nurtured discussion about socially engaged art and creative economic development. The second, Art and Green Infrastructure, explored how art can be integrated into green infrastructure to have a higher impact. To be notified about other arts and culture-focused educational opportunities, please join the MAPC Arts & Culture mailing list and the NEFA mailing list!

About New England Foundation for the Arts

The New England Foundation for the Arts invests in artists and communities and fosters equitable access to the arts, enriching the cultural landscape in New England and the nation.  NEFA accomplishes this by granting funds to artists and cultural organizations; connecting them to networks and knowledge-building opportunities; and analyzing their economic contributions. NEFA serves as a regional partner for the National Endowment for the Arts, New England’s state arts agencies, and private foundations. Learn more at

About MAPC’s Arts & Culture Division

MAPC’s Arts and Culture Division delivers technical assistance in emerging practice areas including cultural planning, creative placemaking, creative community development, arts and cultural data collection and analysis, and cultural policy. The division also develop and deliver trainings for planners, community developers, and local government officials that aim to build competencies in the aforementioned practice areas, and is responsible for the award-winning Arts & Planning Toolkit.