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The Healing Museum

The idea that making and experiencing art can be therapeutic pervades contemporary culture, so it is no surprise that museums are responding to the collective trauma of Covid-19 by addressing concerns of mental and physical health with unprecedented intensity. The past sixteen months have witnessed a profusion of museum-based healing initiatives. The Queens Museum in New York launched La Ventanita/The Little Window, an online art therapy program for recent immigrants and students at local elementary schools. The Tampa Museum of Art is expanding in-person and virtual offerings in Connections, a community art engagement program geared toward people with depression, memory loss, and PTSD. In Doha, Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar is teaming up with the National Museum of Qatar to design a telehealth art therapy program to alleviate children’s anxiety and depression. The Rubin Museum of Art in New York developed an online “care package” with an option to meditate amid chanting monks in a virtual version of its shrine room.

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Indeed, there are few institutions that have not developed multiple programs and exhibitions intended to heal. Sometimes coupled with racial justice initiatives inspired by last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, new curatorial projects—often online and produced by necessity on a shoestring budget—foreground issues of wellness, self-care, harm reduction, illness, disability, access, and mourning. These include the “Care Syllabus” at Mass MoCA, “Mending the Sky” at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and “Healing, Knowing, Seeing the Body” at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas.

Is this flurry of healing cultural initiatives a faddish effort to entice well-meaning funders? While the pandemic has heightened the art world’s promotion of therapy, museums and galleries have long been actively involved in discussions about art’s relationship to health. In 2017 the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts hired a full-time art therapist and permitted physicians to formally “prescribe” free access to their galleries—a novelty that garnered much media attention inside and outside the art world. But this is just one of the latest twists in an eighty-year history of museums designing exhibitions, research projects, and educational programs about the therapeutic possibilities of art and art-making. What’s more, museum exhibitions and other programming efforts directly contributed to the development of art therapy, a professional specialization in the mental health field that arose in the 1940s and 1950s. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was one influential institutional leader grappling with the nexus of art and health at that time. The history of health-related projects at MoMA demonstrates how museums have shaped trajectories of therapy in public culture—and suggests they are poised to do so again.

Rosalba Sierra’s self-portrait made during the Queens Museum’s La Ventanita/The Little Window program, 2020, colored pencil on paper. Courtesy Queens Museum, New York

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an assortment of European and American psychologists, educators, artists, art historians, and social reformers puzzled out the relationship between art and health, with an emphasis on mental well-being. As the revolutionary psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung circulated and gained traction within psychology and across society, there was growing interest in artistic expression as a window into the inner workings of the mind. Influenced by dreams and the concept of the unconscious, Surrealists cultivated techniques like exquisite corpse and automatic drawing to liberate themselves from conscious control over the artistic process.

At the same time, mental health experts such as German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn and Austrian art historian and psychoanalyst Ernst Kris attempted to find meaning in the mysterious art produced by patients at asylums, people with cognitive disabilities, and children. Later classified as Art Brut by artist Jean Dubuffet and as “outsider art” by critic Roger Cardinal, these works were objects of voracious curiosity for avant-garde artists, who yearned for their own creative output to possess the same spirit of spontaneity and authenticity. In the field of art education, meanwhile, Austrian Franz Cizek and American Florence Cane borrowed from psychoanalytic methods to teach children to express themselves freely through drawing or painting. John Dewey, an influential American philosopher and social reformer, wrote extensively on the importance of art-making in education, psychology, and democracy. Elsewhere, occupational therapists in Britain and America incorporated arts and crafts into a regimen of not only psychological but also physical recuperation.

From radically different professional vantage points, these thinkers and practitioners wondered whether making art could be healing, either mentally or physically. Could making a gouache painting or sewing a quilt have positive effects on the psyche as well as the body? Could drawing be integrated into psychoanalytic treatment? What could psychologists and psychiatrists learn about mental illness and cognitive disability from a ceramic sculpture? Could a mental health professional study a patient’s sketch and, based on that observation (in addition to other forms of assessment), offer a diagnosis of schizophrenia, or declare that nothing was wrong at all? While there was no consensus on the precise therapeutic value of art and art-making, this eclectic group of thinkers and practitioners agreed on the potential for cogent interdisciplinary work.

Some of these debates took place at galleries and museums in New York City in the mid-1930s. In 1936, Midtown Galleries showed artworks by patients from European asylums, including some from Prinzhorn’s famous collection, and MoMA had a pathbreaking exhibition titled “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” a year later. Curated by the museum’s inaugural director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., this show boldly put art by renowned Surrealists into dialogue with drawings by psychiatric patients. In one instance, André Masson’s whimsical automatic drawing Birth of Birds (1925), an elusive conglomeration of plant and animal imagery, was juxtaposed with a compelling yet anonymous “psychopathic drawing” (undated) that depicted a tangle of morose faces and finlike limbs.

Pointing out the formal similarities between the two works, Barr suggested in his catalogue essay that the Surrealists deserved praise for their skillful imitation of the art by children and people with psychiatric diagnoses. But a “psychopathic drawing” was not a veritable artwork, due to the mental state of its maker. Even if the curator’s comment was consistent with ingrained cultural beliefs about psychiatric patients and people with cognitive disabilities, not to mention the highly calculated constructions of a modernist like Masson, it is problematic to measure an artwork’s value along these discriminatory lines. Moreover, we can safely assume that the unknown maker of the decontextualized “psychopathic drawing” had little agency with regard to its curatorial inclusion and display. Barr’s insistence on the unbreakable divide between normal artistic genius and clinical psychopathology is curious, as he himself had suffered a nervous breakdown just a few years earlier. Due to his plummeting mental health, he had to take a long break from his museum duties. From 1932 to 1933, he recuperated discreetly in Europe.

Though not about art as therapy per se, the exhibitions at Midtown Galleries and MoMA posited an intrinsic link between artistic production and psychological interiority, something considered from a more rigorous clinical perspective in “Art and Psychopathology” at the Harlem Community Art Center in 1938. Organized by Lauretta Bender, a doctor at the psychiatric division of Bellevue Hospital, the exhibition presented drawings and paintings made by juvenile and adult psychiatric patients in observation wards at Bellevue, exploring connections between art-making, psychiatric diagnosis, and therapy. Without fixed methods, art teachers rather than trained therapists helped patients make these works (at the time, art therapy did not exist). More than an exhibition, “Art and Psychopathology” was an opportunity for research, as three well-attended conferences on the subject that brought together artists, teachers, and psychiatrists made clear.

Dell Marie Hamilton: Emulsions in Departure #11, 2016, archival pigment print on Hahnemühle bamboo paper, 24 by 30¼ inches. Courtesy the artist and Care Syllabus

After World War II, when many veterans came home shell-shocked or maimed, the relationship between art and health became even more salient. MoMA transformed from an elite museum of avant-garde culture to a laboratory of national rehabilitation. Seven years after “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism,” whose understanding of mental health and pathology today seems deeply flawed, MoMA set out to do something different: to illustrate that art-making could treat, and even cure, the psychological and physical damage of war.

Even if the Surrealists celebrated the writings of Freud and Jung, the type of therapy that most interested museum professionals at MoMA was not psychoanalysis or psychotherapy, but occupational therapy. Combining physical and psychological rehabilitation, occupational therapy crystallized as a health care field in Britain and the US toward the end of World War I, though the British Arts and Crafts movement, sparked by John Ruskin and William Morris in the late nineteenth century, was an inspiration for early practitioners, who similarly championed the social value of traditional craft and skilled manual work. A basic tenet of occupational therapy was that a patient could heal by undertaking “occupations” or manual activities, many of which revolved around traditional arts and crafts practices. By weaving a basket or carving a wooden bowl, an injured veteran might be able to regain his sense of worth and productivity, build self-discipline, and learn new technical or professional skills. In this way, activities such as woodworking, beading, sewing, basket weaving, and embroidering were regarded as vehicles for health. This understanding of individual health was inseparable from the imperative of quickly returning to the workplace as a productive member of society.

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, principles of occupational therapy resonated strongly with Dewey’s notion of art education as a means of skill cultivation and citizen-rearing, an approach that informed not only the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, but also MoMA’s fledgling education department, then under the leadership of its founder, Victor D’Amico. The museum’s earliest explicit engagement with occupational therapy occurred in late 1942 with the launch of a competition. A collaborative effort between MoMA, the American Occupational Therapy Association, and the local chapter of the Junior League, this contest asked artists, designers, and therapists from around the country to submit “attractive and useful” designs and objects that could serve as prototypes for recuperating soldiers and sailors in occupational therapy programs. By producing objects based on these artistic models, it was also hoped, the patients would establish a source of income. There were twenty-three winners, collectively awarded $500 for their creative works, which included block prints, paper constructions, woven rugs, metalwork, pottery, and more. Fascinatingly, both Alexander Calder and Masson—whose drawing appeared in “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism”—produced designs for the contest to drum up publicity. Due to their fame, however, neither artist was eligible to win.

Cover of The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, vol. 3, 1943, offset print, 9¼ by 7⅛ inches. ©The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, New York

The successful contest entries formed a key section of “The Arts in Therapy,” curated by James Thrall Soby, then director of MoMA’s Armed Services Program, a new institutional partnership that lent art books and photographs to military bases. Opening on February 3, 1943, the show, divided in two, brought into focus competing understandings of art as therapy: occupational therapy versus “creative therapy,” an ambiguous placeholder for psychotherapy that embraced art-making. This would soon come to be understood as art therapy. Along with the winning designs, the occupational therapy part comprised more than one hundred objects created by wounded patients on the road to recovery. According to the press release, the creative therapy section, meanwhile, emphasized “the use of free media in art—painting, sculpture, drawing, etc.—employed as a means of both diagnosis and cure, with more than one hundred and fifty examples executed by both normal and mentally disturbed individuals.” In addition to mounting the patriotic exhibition, MoMA devoted the February 1943 issue of its magazine, The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, to the topic of art as therapy, featuring essays by specialists in psychiatry, psychology, and art education. From 1943 to 1946, “The Arts in Therapy” traveled to thirty-three educational and art institutions across America.

Though the show was generally considered a triumph, it did not please everyone. Margaret Naumburg, a prominent progressive educator who was in the middle of conducting research on the use of the arts in psychotherapy at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, was a sharp critic. As a matter of fact, she had been a consultant to Soby’s exhibition from its conception, even lending a crayon drawing by one of her patients to the creative therapy section.

During the show’s development, she pushed for greater representation of the benefits of art-making in psychotherapy—and less attention to the task-driven methods and inherently competitive ethos of occupational therapy. After finally seeing the show, Naumburg was frustrated by the curator’s inadequate contextualization of her research as well as his bias toward occupational therapy (MoMA put on an additional exhibition focused solely on occupational therapy in June 1943). While she ultimately did not publish a negative review of “The Arts in Therapy” in the Nation, as she had once planned, the uneven show helped her consolidate some of her ideas about “‘free’ art expression” in opposition to occupational therapy. By 1950, “‘free’ art expression” was usually simplified to “art therapy,” designating a type of psychotherapy that utilized artistic practices and interventions, in addition to talk, as the primary treatment method. Today, Naumburg, who went on to publish several books and organize exhibitions detailing this research over the next two decades, is revered as a founding figure of art therapy, along with other pioneers such as Edith Kramer, Hanna Kwiatkowska, and Elinor Ulman.

The Covid-19 pandemic was and continues to be a global rupture of our economic, political, cultural, and medical ecosystems. The long-term physical and mental health consequences of contracting the virus—and of living through the pandemic—are impossible to forecast. When museums position themselves as therapeutic arenas of art and art-making, it is natural to be somewhat cynical. But, as historical exhibitions about the arts, health, and disability reveal, museums have long catalogued, researched, promoted, and catalyzed new therapeutic forms of aesthetic experience—even if, at times, these efforts were marked by offensive treatment of disabled individuals. One of the most promising developments at art institutions during the pandemic is an increasing awareness of disability justice, whether it’s spotlighting the art of disabled practitioners who might have been marginalized in the past, or rethinking physical and virtual spaces and programming to include a fuller spectrum of accessibility and inclusivity. Museums are absolutely correct in one regard: as a culture we need therapy more than ever. Let’s hope that they draw on their resources, work ethically with communities, and support the growth of innovative and meaningful artistic practices of healing that meet today’s challenges.

This article appears in the September/October 2021 issue, pp. 58–63