Museums & Mental Health: Healing in Creative Community

Chloe Hayward

A Studio Museum Teaching Artist at Ali Forney Center in 2019.

When people think about mental health and wellness, museums might not be the first thought that comes to mind. Even as I was studying to become an art therapist, I never considered museums as a site for therapeutic practice. But my two decades of experience, half of which I’ve spent with the Studio Museum’s Education Department, tells me otherwise.

Over the years, the connections and intersections between art and psychology in museum spaces have become apparent, and exploring them necessary, timely, and appropriate. During this particular moment of uncertainty and turbulence, art therapy has the potential to provide sanctuary. In a time that asks us to confront and acknowledge our relationship with race, identity, visibility, and voice, art offers a path. 

The use of art materials offers space to address feelings in ways that words cannot. It is a universal language, one in which museums are fluent. I hope to see the field of art therapy continue to expand, and continue to include nontraditional therapeutic settings such as museums—spaces that can provide healing and restoration in their community-centered practices.

The creative process lends itself to moments of self-awareness, reflection, and understanding. It allows us to connect to others while also offering the space to witness and confront the ways in which we do not find familiarity and comfort, and to examine, with others, the contemporary context through the critique of societal norms—norms that are often deeply rooted in oppression.

Typical art therapy approaches often ask people to take individual responsibility for their actions rather than address systems that place people at risk from systemic racism and prejudice. In this way, museums become a space to serve communities, as they offer the opportunity, through artwork, to initiate conversations that address the complexities of race, identity, social justice, and inclusion. Additionally, when pathology and diagnosis are removed, as is standard in traditional art therapy, space is created for individuals leading the work and partaking in it to engage in ways that are authentic to the community and allow for self-definition. My theory is that, much like the ways cultural institutions are moving toward equity, art therapy can uplift the community-based path of therapeutic intervention to increase accessibility. Experiences based in community structures, such as museums, remove stigmatization, pivot how we consider our needs and our lives in relationship to those needs, and offer resources and access that may not be available otherwise.

The Studio Museum in Harlem Family Day at Riverbank State Park in 2017

Together, we shape and provide the spaces necessary for people to come together and create the vision of community they wish to see, experience, and feel.

At The Studio Museum in Harlem we see this in the rich and rigorous programming offered across the institution, from Education, to Public Programs & Community Engagement, to Curatorial. As I continue to collaborate with my colleagues in the Education Department, the process of creating experiences centered in art processes considers the care at the heart of all we are offering. Here, the traditional model of education is widened, deepened, and enriched to include the emotional intelligence that the experience of art speaks to. Many of the people I am honored to cocreate with have educational and therapeutic practices grounded in community care and healing. Together we shape and provide the spaces necessary for people to come together and create the vision of community they wish to see, experience, and feel.

Therapeutic arts experiences in museums offer the opportunity to view artwork and offer connective threads through material and verbal interaction. Over the years, in using what is known as an Open Studio approach, I’ve seen community members share, witness, and support one another. The Open Studio theoretical framework creates a link between an art studio and therapy practice, an alternative to clinification, the practice and process that focuses on treatment and diagno- sis in a clinical setting. The Open Studio process, on the other hand, seeks to promote the relationship that each of us has with the artist within—the self, the soul. Then this creative expression is witnessed by the community and supports shared engagement. By stepping out of the world of art therapy and its language of “treatment,” “therapy,” and “diagnosis,” we are making an essential statement that creativity is more closely aligned to an individual’s health than to any disease process.

As a result, people are able to experience positive interpersonal connections and relationships, communi- cation, emotional expression, and creativity. Especially in this historic moment, it is vital that museums be seen as spaces for recovery that respond to trauma through engagement in a community practice. Individuals dealing with oppressive structures and systems need a safe space for processing their thoughts, feelings, and emotions, some of which reside in the collective uncon- scious. Museums are a site for the excavation of society's psychological structures. They become transformative and empowering spaces to retell stories and personal narratives, and allow transformational experiences, exposing people—families, adults, teens—to larger social experiences and creating healing and unification through reflection and understanding.

Making meaning of our experiences is important; it is part of the power and magic of art. The community- based practice offers art in a way that destigmatizes mental health and uplifts the voices of the Black community and other communities of color. It provides a safe space for reflective distance and brings all people into the discussion on issues surrounding social justice, gender, race, and identity.

The Studio Museum in Harlem, an institution that deeply values Black lives, experiences, and culture, is uniquely positioned to encourage and promote a thera- peutic arts-based practice, as a place with the cultural competency necessary to do this work. Community-based therapeutic art allows for discovering disruptive truths and counter-narratives for communities often underrepresented and marginalized. Museum spaces and the Studio Museum in particular can serve as spaces where the lives and experiences of Black people and people of color are reflected in creative opportunities, and the process of witnessing and uplifting one another. In this way, together, we create space not only for the exchange of ideas around art and society, but for a transformation of society itself.