Tim Pitsiulak, Armoured Whale, 2014. Coloured pencil and black ink on wove paper, 119 x 246 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Dorset Fine Arts Photo: NGC

The Impact of Art: Peace, Solace and Healing

“I can’t imagine not looking at art. It’s very important to me,” says Diana Kirkwood. An avid arts consumer, Kirkwood enjoys all of the arts – including live theatre, opera, music – and is a devoted gallery-goer.  “You get a vivid reaction right away from looking at art. It can evoke a response, intellectually, but mostly it’s visual. Colour is important to me.”

A report published by the World Health Organization in 2019 confirmed that art is also important for our mental and physical health. In a review of more than 3,000 studies on the role of the arts in improving health and wellbeing – for conditions spanning stroke, heart disease and cancer, as well as dementia, isolation and bereavement – the report underscores the value of the arts “in the prevention of ill health, promotion of health and management and treatment of illness across the lifespan.”

Tom Thomson, Spring Ice, 1916. Oil on canvas, 72 x 102.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Based in Ottawa, Kirkwood is normally a regular visitor to the National Gallery of Canada, but as a senior during a pandemic, she has had to curtail her in-person art experiences significantly. The Gallery is open, with extensive distancing and hygiene practices in place. For those, however, who still feel they aren’t ready to venture into public spaces, the Gallery has also upped its online presence through its Virtual Tour web pages, its Houseblend Live and Spotlight Tours on Instagram and YouTube, and programs such as SPARK! @ Home and the Distance Learning school program webinars.

Speaking of SPARK! @ Home, NGC Educator Andrea Gumpert explains she started the program as an in-gallery experience that people living with dementia could attend with their caregivers. During the pandemic, she says, it has been equally successful as a virtual experience. “We see a lot of laughter. When we spend time looking at a piece, we start to question things, notice things. I think looking at an artwork is something that gives you pleasure. It enables us to calm down and re-connect with others, and bring us into the present moment. It should be one of the tools available to help you manage stress.”

Andy Warhol, Brillo Soap Pads Boxes, 1964. Plywood boxes with serigraph and acrylic, boxes: 43.2 x 43.2 x 35.6 cm each. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, inc. / SOCAN (2022) Photo: NGC

This is because looking at art exercises our perceptions while refining and strengthening sensory capacity, says Laura Marks, a professor of Media Arts and Philosophy at Simon Fraser University. “The visual and cognitive parts of your brain are working when you look at art,” she explains. “Art is good at teaching us to pay attention to what is in front of us. That gives us better awareness, so that when we do start to have thoughts, they’re better grounded.”

Gary Goodacre, the Gallery’s Chief of Education and Public Programs, says looking at art also provides a sense of social connection, because you are always in a kind of dialogue with someone, whether it is with the artist through the subject of the painting, or the people with whom you are visiting the gallery. “When you are looking at art, or looking at art with someone, you come into different perspectives, so all of a sudden, you’re not alone,” he notes. “Whether you are online or at the Gallery, a lot of people just want to re-charge their batteries, disconnect from the day-to-day in a quiet space where they can let go of their stress and rejuvenate.” Marks adds that looking at art  “allows you to strengthen yourself, in a safe way. Even with difficult or unpleasant art experiences, you often come out feeling better.”

Image removed due to copyright restrictions.

Guido Molinari, Untitled, 1955. Oil on canvas, 59.6 x 50.4 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Estate of Guido Molinari / SOCAN (2020) Photo: NGC

Loneliness and isolation were two key issues examined in an 18-month pilot project that concluded in March 2020, undertaken by the Alliance for Healthier Communities. Funded by the Ontario Ministry of Health, the project examined the benefits of “social prescribing” in 11 community health centres. The program allowed primary care providers to write prescriptions for non-drug interventions or activities that included going to galleries, museums, arts, or music events. More than 80% of people’s health is determined outside of clinical health care, observes Kate Mulligan, the Alliance’s Director of Policy and Communications and an assistant professor in Community Health at the University of Toronto. She says research indicates that significant physical and mental benefits can be derived from the arts.

Drier, Children in Painting Studio, c.1851–70. Albumen silver print with applied colour, 7.5 x 13.4 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

For example, Mulligan says that older adults who participate in a community event – such as occasionally going to a theatre, museum or gallery – are 20% less likely to develop a physical disability and show a 25% reduction in chronic pain. People who attend cultural programs at least once a month are 48% less likely to develop depression, while new mothers participating in a singing group, for example, can reduce their symptoms of post-partum depression by 40%. Mulligan says research indicates many other benefits of the arts on mental and physical health.

Gary Goodacre notes that art can also be a vehicle for communicating, connecting and learning. Whenever the Gallery develops its programs, he is hoping people learn something new, or look at something in a new way. “For me, that’s where the sense of connection comes into play.”


Consult the Gallery's website for Virtual Tour, Events and Educations programs, as well as Houseblend Live, Spotlight Tours and SPARK! @ Home; or click below to go directly the Gallery's Social Media channels. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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