Providence Business News Puts a Focus on RI Teaching Artists & Healthcare

Five Questions With: Sherilyn Brown

Posted: Monday, February 13, 2017 4:55 am


Sherilyn Brown is education director at the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, which, with the R.I. Department of Health, recently partnered to create the Arts & Health Advisory Group, which grew out of Rhode Island artists’ experiences working in the fields of health and healing. Brown talked recently with Providence Business News about the Arts & Health Advisory Group and its membership, focus and goals.

PBN: When did the Arts & Health Advisory Group get established, what is its purpose and who is funding it?

BROWN: The Arts & Health Advisory Group grew out of the passion and experience that Rhode Island artists have for working in the field of health and healing. The R.I. Teaching Artists Center held a sold-out conference two years ago on the topic. Additionally, the opportunities and practices here in Rhode Island have been expanding over the last several years as part of a much larger arts and health movement nationally, through organizations such as the National Organization for Arts in Health, which is hosting its first annual conference, in conjunction with the 30th Healthcare Facilities and Design Symposium and Exposition in September 2017 in Austin, Texas, and Rhode Island School of Design.

Given the power of the arts to address needs in the health sector, the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts approached the R.I. Department of Health for a potential partnership. The conversation yielded possible areas where artists could further the initiatives of the DOH, such as Health Equity Zones or community health workers. Additionally, national research makes clear a wide variety of possible focus areas for an arts and health initiative, including such areas as patient care, healing environments and health care provider education.


The purpose of the group is to develop a statewide plan for arts and health, aligned with the state’s current health care initiatives. The planning process is being funded by a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation, and is being facilitated by Brown University’s School of Public Health. The group serves as an advisory group to DOH Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott and Elizabeth Roberts, secretary of the R.I. Office of Health and Human Services. A draft plan is due in summer 2017.

PBN: You’ve talked about the passion and experience that artists in Rhode Island have for their work in the fields of health and healing. Can you describe what kinds of experiences participating artists have had and what kinds of artists – painters, musicians, dancers or others – are involved?

BROWN: Artists across all arts disciplines work in health care settings, from hospitals to long-term care facilities to hospice. Members of the group also emphasize that artists often engage people in activities that promote physical and emotional health, and don’t just treat patients with a diagnosis.

Some examples of arts in health care work include dance for people with Parkinson’s and theater to help young people in partial hospitalization settings tell their stories. The intentional design of spaces and communities that use color and other design elements to support the well-being of people in treatment or in their daily lives is becoming more common. Singers provide bedside support to those at the end of their lives, and visual artists engage children and adults in viewing, discussing and creating paintings during their hospital stays. There are many wonderful articles about the ways that the arts can engage with health, healing and health care, including a sampling created by the National Endowment for the Arts. Anyone interested in this topic will find more information about the intersection of arts and health through an online search. Our final report will also provide detailed information on research.

PBN: Who is eligible to be a member of the Arts & Health Advisory Group? Is the group seeking additional members?

BROWN: The Arts & Health Advisory Group is comprised of a variety of people working professionally in the fields of arts and health, with experience in one or both of those sectors. The group is comprised of 30 members, from artists in all disciplines to DOH staff, nurses, physicians and other members of the community. The group is not seeking new members at this time, as it is currently a working group in process. However, it is seeking input from the larger community as part of the planning design and research protocol.

PBN: Do artists bring a different sensibility to the healing process? How can they play a unique role in furthering the goals and objectives of the DOH, such as the Health Equity Zones?

BROWN: My work in education makes me think about how the arts and teaching artists uniquely address the development of the whole child, the whole person – emotionally, physically and, it is often said, spiritually. The same can be said for the role of the arts in health. We are whole beings with individual stories, not a bundle of symptoms, diagnoses or body parts. Tapping into our creativity reminds of our humanity, our natural life-giving energy and the strength of our thoughts, feelings and ideas. The arts are empowering, whether you are a physician learning to be more observant and hear a patient’s story more fully, or you are an elder struggling with maintaining a sense of worth.

The issue of health equity is critical. So, for example, as Health Equity Zones are implementing their work plans, the inclusion and consideration of the arts can put everyone on an equal footing as creative beings who can improve the design and health of their communities. Rhode Island’s Health Equity Zone initiative is a project that is empowering people and organizations to come together and implement solutions to the unique, community-level obstacles to health that exist in their neighborhoods.

PBN: What are the group’s goals and objectives for the next 12-18 months?

BROWN: Our immediate goals are gathering research and information, listening to informants, understanding how we fit into the larger health care policy picture, and putting together a plan that helps the state innovate and improve its health and health care. We are a creative state and deserve innovative solutions that serve the community – children, adults, patients, seniors, caregivers and health care providers. Our wealth of talented artists and creative citizens positions us well for this task.