In 2008, Tiffany Blackmon, an Indianapolis mom of three, fell down some stairs and suffered a traumatic brain injury. She went through intensive physical therapy, along with counseling, to help her manage her anxiety and stress. Nearly a decade later, she sometimes struggles to remember details and time frames.
A medicine she takes causes her to gain weight, so Blackmon, 40, joined a Healthy Me lifestyle/wellness group at Eskenazi Health Center Grassy Creek, where she and her family receive their primary care. One day, the group’s coach, Tari Morales, gave Blackmon a surprising “prescription”: free passes to visit Newfields. This past summer, Blackmon brought her husband, Lawrence, their three children, and her mother-in-law for a visit to the IMA Galleries and The Garden. The oldest daughter, who’s 17 and loves to draw, especially loved the art. Blackmon enjoyed the exercise and the relaxation.
“I could’ve stayed much longer,” said Blackmon, who wrote a thank-you note to Morales. “It gave me a calm and peaceful feeling.”
People who work at or regularly visit museums intuitively know that art, as the influential German-American textile artist Anni Albers once said, is “something that can make you breathe a different kind of happiness.” But can it make you healthier? Well, actually, yes. In 2013, as part of the Happy Museum Project, Daniel Fujiwara of the London School of Economics analyzed two years of action research from 12 museums that had been commissioned to improve guests’ well-being. His finding? Museums make people happier and healthier, even after accounting for other influencing factors.
For years, Newfields has offered weekly yoga classes to the public and monthly Meet Me at Newfields tours for people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers. But in 2019, it launched Art as Medicine, a pilot program to address broader community health issues in Indianapolis.
Art as Medicine is part of an international movement called “social prescribing,” which started in the United Kingdom. Doctors and other health professionals look holistically at a patient’s life—physical and mental health, financial and social stressors, and personal goals and interests. Then they devise a custom plan that might include referrals to non-medical resources such as a financial advisor for debt management, a walking club for exercising and socializing, or a public park for relaxing.
At Newfields, CFO Jerry Wise has led the Art as Medicine initiative. He saw Eskenazi Health, where he serves on a board of directors, as the ideal partner.
“Eskenazi is a national leader in understanding the impact that social determinants have on overall health outcomes, and specifically the effect that art and nature experiences have,” Wise said. “With their focus on Marion County’s Medicaid population, they are a natural partner for this initiative.”
When the state-of-the-art Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Hospital opened in 2013, nearly 20 contemporary artworks were commissioned for the building. The site has a century-long history of incorporating art and nature into its healing process, beginning in 1914 with City Hospital’s display of T.C. Steele’s Four Seasons murals of Brown County landscapes. (The Steele paintings currently hang at Eskenazi Health.)
That vision has evolved under Dr. Lisa Harris, CEO of Eskenazi Health, which also oversees 11 neighborhood primary-care centers in Indianapolis. Last summer, Newfields distributed 300 prescription passes among three centers: West 38th Street, Grassy Greek, and Pecar.
There, clinical staff selectively gave the passes to patients, most of whom had been diagnosed with diabetes, hypertension, or depression—chronic conditions that often co-exist. The patients could visit Newfields at no charge and bring up to three guests. Many brought their children or grandchildren.
“Our staff is trained on motivational interviewing,” said Dr. Dawn Haut, CEO of Eskenazi Health Center, Eskenazi Health's primary care divisions. “We often have known these families for many years and can build on that trust. As we partner with patients to design a care plan that meets their goals, we learn what motivates them.”
Together, the three Eskenazi Health sites see about 70,000 patient visits a year. But, each clinic took a different approach. At Grassy Creek, a Healthy Me lifestyle/ wellness coach gave the passes to members of her group session. At Pecar, Maria Howard, a licensed clinician with Sandra Eskenazi Mental Health Care, incorporated the program into a support group called Inspire, for women who have experienced trauma.
“When I found out about this, I thought it was great to get women to experience art and get out into the community,” Howard said. “Many of these women have never experienced anything like this.”
Over the past five years, more research has shown the ways that interacting with art and nature can contribute to people’s quality of life. In Australia, for example, researchers found museums play a critical role in combating social isolation, particularly in older people. At the same time, more museums are adding public health programming. In 2016, M Shed, a museum in Bristol, England, launched Art Shed, a group for people with low-level anxiety and depression. At the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida, social workers and artists co-host Kids Together Against Cancer workshops for families coping with a cancer diagnosis.
At Newfields, Wise said his goal is to extend Art as Medicine to other health centers and hospitals.
“We know from research the tremendous impact that visiting art museums and gardens can have on people’s health, and we would like to eventually get these prescriptions to be widely accepted and covered by health insurance,” he said. “For now, we believe people can use these visits as part of their treatment and their preventative care.”
Using wellness strategies such as nutrition and exercise, and programs such as Art as Medicine, Eskenazi Health professionals hope to work with patients to lower their blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and “ultimately wean them off medication,” Dr. Haut said.
The program’s success will be measured, with funding from the Eli Lilly and Company Foundation, through interviews and surveys with patients to help understand the impact of their visits. Wise also wants to better understand what motivates Eskenazi Health patients to redeem the prescriptions.
Similar programs between museums and health care centers have had strong results. The University of California Davis and the Crocker Museum in Sacramento offer Art Rx, in hopes of giving relief to people who suffer from chronic pain. Patients, along with their family, friends, and caregivers, are invited to visit the museum for free. They can join special tours and discussions, or just relax and explore.
UC Davis followed up with a study of program participants, published in 2018 in the journal Pain Medicine. They found that 57 percent of patients in the study reported pain relief during the tours, along with feelings of social connection.
"I am looking at art and...I am no longer in my body," one patient said. "I am in a place of connection."