Bringing art to heal

At first glance, it appears as if the social norms of the military and the arts are incompatible. That perception is so pervasive, in fact, that it threatens art therapy programs at military hospitals.

That was the challenge we were asked to address at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where an art therapy program was showing very good early results. We worked with medical staff, military leadership and arts professionals to look for some way to reconcile values of the two fields.

Surprisingly, it turned out we didn’t need to. By digging into the military budget and the realities of the military experience, we discovered that the arts are already a critical element of what the Pentagon does. At the time, the budget for military bands alone was bigger than the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal agency that supports arts institutions and arts programs in all 50 states.

The key was simply the arts speaking the military’s language. “Walter Reed’s leaders could evaluate all of their arts programs using the same metrics the Pentagon uses to assess its own efforts to reintegrate soldiers into civilian life,” our report read. “This data could not only bolster the role of art at Walter Reed, but serve as the basis for new military arts programs.”

We were enlisted in this effort by Mike Orlove, director at the National Endowment for the Arts. It is one of several projects of our projects related to the social norms of health care, including our work with Harvard on mobile health, our work with a start up on the role of patients, and our publication on the social determinants of health and professional education.