Paolo Rossi Castelli 22 December 2021 14 min read

The Alliance for a sustainable future involves Art, Music and Architecture.

A mother and her daughter are singing. All around them, there are other women and their children ‘lost in music’. It’s not a birthday party or a fun get-together with friends. This is a ‘healing session’, part of a pilot project started in the U.K. and aimed at mothers suffering from post-natal depression. The singing, say the participants, helps to create a sense of community and becomes “almost meditative”. The new mums sit in circle. The do not have to talk or explain why they are there – they are part of a music session in the here and now and are just sharing a space, pleasantly. This video was shown at the end of a presentation by Nils Fietje, Research Officer on Cultural Contexts of Health and Well-being for the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as one of the editors of the first WHO report on the relationship between the arts, improving health and well-being. It was discussed at the first Swiss Forum entitled “Arts and Health – An alliance for a sustainable future” organised and promoted in Mendrisio and Lugano, on 26th and 27 November by the IBSA Foundation for Scientific Research and the Lugano City Arts Department, headed by Luigi Di Corato. It involved two days of meetings and discussions on humanising care and healthcare spaces, based on scientific evidence and good national and international practices.

“Long before humans discovered penicillin or genetics, they created art and music. Our need to express our hopes and fears, to give meaning to what surrounds us and share it with others through artistic creations, is as deep as our need to slake our thirst or feed our hunger. So why are we surprised that art can improve health? That it can make us feel good?” commented Fietje by video link from his home in Copenhagen, at the start of his talk. For around ten minutes, using the WHO report published in November 2019 as a starting point, the researcher outlined the reasons and scientific data to support using artistic activities alongside more traditional biomedical treatments. Basically, “There is scientific evidence that the arts play a role in improving health and well-being”.

The proof is found in over 900 publications on 3000 studies carried out between 2000 and 2019 and monitored by UCL (University College London) for the WHO that demonstrate the beneficial effects on health of both active and passive arts activities. Basically, whether it’s sitting in a theatre, listening to a concert, reading a book or dancing (or even taking care of your garden – although the WHO report has not monitored, for the moment, the effects of gardening or architecture): all these activities and moments of contact with the arts have proved useful in managing care and treating various diseases, for those who suffer from neurological diseases (like dementia or various kinds of trauma), but also diabetes, obesity, cancer or cardiovascular disease and in palliative care settings.

But that’s not all: the positive effects of arts and culture in preventing illnesses and promoting well-being have been demonstrated. Art has a positive impact on socialisation and increases social cohesion. It helps prevent cognitive decline and supports and strengthens the relationship between parents and new-borns. Finally, it not only helps those who are ill, but also those caring for people with health problems. So art and culture not only contribute to the individual psychological sphere (in managing emotions, for example) but also the physical sphere (by lowering stress hormones and strengthening the immune system) and the social sphere (reducing solitude and isolation). They also have an effect on behaviour (promoting the acquisition of ‘good practices’). “Recognising the role of the arts in improving health and well-being - underlines Nils Fietje, focussing once more on the WHO report – shouldn’t be a mere academic exercise, but it should also be the basis for implementing policies that support arts initiatives in the health sector and that can be shared amongst various countries”.

But three years after the World Health Organization's report, what has been the outcome of this call to make concrete plans for healthcare spaces to improve an individual’s physical, mental and social well-being? This was what the Forum organisers asked themselves and they then chose some positive projects in Switzerland and elsewhere that used art, to paraphrase the French painter and sculptor Georges Braque, ‘to turn a wound into light’.

The first example of good practices is the Zurich Children’s Hospital, as hospital director and professor of paediatrics at Zurich University (UZH), Michael Grotzer mentioned in his talk at the Forum. With the help of American artist James Turrell, the hospital spaces have been redesigned to leave space for light (both during the day and night). It has been seen that this helps improve the health of young patients, but also supports family members and carers, as well as making the living and working conditions of doctors and hospital staff more pleasant. At this point, as Grotzer stresses, “the fact that light and colour have an effect on health and well-being shouldn’t only be something that concerns designers and psychologists, but also clinics”.

The second example, also a children’s hospital, comes from Helsinki. It is called “Soundscape” and involves the paediatric hospital in the Finnish capital. “Soundscape” was developed and created between 2017 and 2018 by students of Sound in New Media MA at the Aalto University Media Lab. It was presented at the Forum by the project’s researcher, Antti Ikonen and offers an design featuring colours, materials and sounds to create a relaxing environment for children, their families and medical staff. Sixty speakers have been placed in the hospital spaces to play background music that recalls running water, or tweeting birds, accompanied by different instruments, which are specially designed, shaped and then computer programmed for children, who hear things differently from adults. The project was awarded the Grand Prix 2019 (International Sound Awards), while the hospital won the “Finlandia Prize for Architecture” in 2018.

If we are talking about how music concretely affects health, then we should definitely mention the use of sound for the elderly and the project discussed by Paolo Paoloantonio, musician and researcher at the Swiss-Italian Conservatory (CSI), and winner of one of three awards at the National Competition for Arts and Health in Switzerland, organised by the IBSA Foundation for scientific research and the City of Lugano Arts Department. Paolantonio presented the results of "Music in the community", a full music programme of ten sessions that involved twenty-two residents in homes for the elderly and nine students from the music conservatories from 2015 to 2017, with extremely positive effects.

Another Competition prize was awarded to the "Scintille" project, organised by Patrizia Nalbach, an artist, cultural mediator and music therapist, aimed at people suffering from cognitive decline in old age (Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia), taking them outside care facilities and bringing them to art spaces.

The third prize was awarded to Roberta Pedrinis, creator of the "art therapy in cancer patient rehabilitation” project. Finally, there are two special mentions for "Theatricality meets the world of dementia: TINCONTRONLINE", by Rita Pezzati, and "Teatro di quartiere", by Patrizia Berger.

During the Forum, Tobia Bezzola (director of the Swiss-Italian Museum of Art) also presented "In the public eye", a project that developed from a partnership between the Museum and the Canton Hospital Organisation. This initiative - explained Bezzola – created in 2017 has continued over the years by placing works of art in the public spaces at the Lugano City Hospital to “offer patients, visitors and those who work there, the chance to see art in a different setting to an institutional one like a museum or gallery. Works of art in places marked by pain and suffering, and where people experience fragility and vulnerability, can offer emotional support, especially because art has the ability to speak to the human soul on a profound level, that words alone cannot reach”.

In the same vein, Professor Enzo Grossi (lecturer in culture and health at Turin University’s Faculty of Medicine) recalled the cooperation between the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and an association of French-speaking Canadian doctors, for free museum visits prescribed by a doctor. “It is the first project in the world,” explains Grossi, “that aims to let patients, their family members and carers enjoy the benefits of art for health”.

“Did you already know about these projects?” Catterina Seia, co-presenter of the Forum asked the public. The silence in the audience was a clear sign of how much still needs to be done to promote these initiatives. “We need to help raise awareness that art and culture are not only pleasant activities,” said Silvia Misiti, director of the IBSA Foundation for scientific research, “but that they can also play an important (and scientifically demonstrated) part in preventing disease and promoting health, both in managing and treating various diseases”.

Curated by Valeria Camia with
Paolo Rossi Castelli 


Paolo Rossi Castelli

Journalist since 1983, Paolo has been dealing with scientific divulgation for years, especially in the fields of medicine and biology. He is the creator of Sportello Cancro, the site created by on oncology in collaboration with the Umberto Veronesi Foundation. He collaborated with the pages of the Science of Corriere della Sera for several years. He is the founder and director of PRC-Comunicare la scienza.