Aligning Partners in the Arts and Public Health: Striking the Best Balance

As someone who has spent nearly a decade in public health and health equity, I’m excited and somewhat chagrined to come across the work covered in this session. Why hadn’t I heard of this, or even thought of this, before?! It’s a testament to the persistent power of status quo and silos unless they are actively dismantled. I appreciate even more the importance and need for the research, frameworks, projects and ideas discussed in this session that lay the groundwork for emerging cross-sector collaboration and partnership between the arts and public health.

Health equity practitioners have spent the last few years moving even further “upstream” to examine not just the social determinants of health but also the structural determinants—root causes that create unfair and unequal distribution of social, economic and environmental conditions for health. Through the leadership of such partners as The California Endowment, Human Impact Partners, and the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative, public health departments have begun to explore partnerships with community organizing and grassroots power building as a key upstream approach for affecting change in policies, institutions, and structures.

It’s like discovering newfound relatives at a family reunion, then, to hear the panelists in this session talk about building a shared evidence base, and translating knowledge and data into practice and policy for specific ways that arts and culture can close disparities and improve population health outcomes.

Jill Sonke of the University of Florida Center for the Arts in Medicine shared a white paper published last year, that draws on the insights of more than 250 thought leaders in public health, arts and culture to establish a clarion call for the public health sector to embrace arts and culture as a resource and partner for advancing health and equity. The authors write: “There is no single action mechanism for advancing health. Instead, health must be woven throughout the fabric of social life, including policy, education, and sociocultural norms. Arts and culture are critical to this integrating process. They are critical because they have the power to connect people, expose root issues, center underrepresented voices and concerns, and shift sociocultural norms and collective behaviors.”

Other panelists shared examples of collaborative work underway to connect the arts and health. Tracey Knuckles of Bloomberg Associates spoke of Bloomberg’s investment in the EpiArts Lab to apply epidemiology to examine impacts of the arts on health outcomes. Rick Luftglass of the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund and Yasemin Ozumerzifon of grantee Gibney shared their work to center the healing and leadership of survivors of domestic and gender-based violence utilizing dance workshops.

I’m taking away a wealth of resources and ideas for bringing back to my colleagues, to strengthen and build on integrating the arts as therapeutic and communication tools for public health, and also to deepen our understanding and collaboration with arts and cultural strategists as partners in the collective task of eliminating health inequities and advancing optimal well-being for all people.