An afternoon at the museum can be a rich, rewarding experience. It turns out, visiting museums, galleries and art institutions can be good for you, too: Studies have shown that art museums can help people lessen loneliness, fight stress and find meaning in their lives.
Despite those benefits, the number of people visiting museums in the U.S. has declined in recent decades; the largest dip occurred between 1982 to 2012, where the rates fell more than 17 percent among younger Americans. The number of visitors shrunk even more during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, when at least 85,000 museums around the world closed their doors.
As people stayed home, many museums relied on information and communication technologies to maintain a link with the public, essentially taking their offerings digital. Some held virtual exhibitions, conferences and webinars, among other online activities, to help people stay culturally connected during a profoundly isolating time. But do the benefits of viewing art still occur when it's experienced through a screen rather than face-to-face? A study recently published in Frontiers in Psychology found promising results, suggesting the benefits translate either way.
Art and Your Mental Health
It's basic human nature to express the self visually, and viewing art helps individuals get better in touch with their emotions, says Ikuko Acosta, clinical associate professor in the Department of Art and Art Professions at New York University.
“Art, through its visual means and symbolic implications, elicits our unconscious thoughts and feelings freely,” says Acosta.
Looking at paintings has been found to cause a similar pattern of brain activity as other pleasurable experiences, like eating food or having sex. What's more, visual art exposure can activate the reward system in the brain, which is demonstrated to modulate survival behaviors by reducing stress levels.
But beyond these physiological benefits, viewing art is a contemplative experience that encourages people to slow down, catch their breath, and be fully present, says Sarah Vollmann, an art therapist and licensed clinical social worker. It also provides an opportunity for people to learn and find meaning or inspiration in their lives.
“Various studies have shown that viewing art can heighten our mood, reduce anxiety and stress, and increase our overall sense of wellness and contentment,” says Vollmann. “We might also experience decreased loneliness after a museum or gallery visit because they provide a space for social engagement.”
Visiting art museums has also been shown to decrease systolic blood pressure and self-reported measure of stress. The physical boundaries, carefully curated displays, lighting, and subdued sound of a museum or gallery signal a distinct difference from the outside world and may offer viewers a safe space, says Vollmann.
That said, the benefits of art viewing aren’t necessarily limited to in-person experiences. According to the recent Frontiers in Psychology study, even briefly viewing cultural interventions online led to improvements in mood, anxiety, loneliness and wellbeing. In the study, participants engaged with one of two online exhibitions — either a painting or a display of cultural material — for an average of one to two minutes. The authors concluded that online cultural engagement (including, but not limited to, fine art) may benefit mental health, especially when the stimulus inspires positive emotions in the viewer and is considered beautiful and meaningful.
Vollmann, who was not involved in the study, isn't surprised by the positive outcomes of viewing art online, as the results mirror some of the findings for art-viewing experiences in person.
“Online viewing has its own unique benefits that are important to harness, as it opens up pathways of access and creates a new forum to enhance mental health,” she says. Still, Vollmann also notes that some parts of the experience just don't translate. “I don’t think that online art viewing can replace an in-person experience, as the scale, color, and immediacy of an art piece cannot be reproduced digitally."
Find Art That Resonates
Not all art (or art viewers, for that matter) is created equal. It’s too simplistic to say that all forms of art can improve one’s well-being, since some pieces can negatively affect a viewer’s state of mind, says Acosta. The benefits of viewing art still depend on the “synchronicity between the kind and the nature of the art and the emotional state of the viewer at the time of looking at the specific piece,” she adds.
People are often drawn to specific art pieces for a reason. If you are entranced by one in particular, Vollmann suggests thinking about the underlying reasons for the attraction. Maybe it makes you think about your identity, evokes certain memories or elicits different sensations. This may allow you to learn new things about yourself and make the art-viewing experience something transformative, she adds.
“Ultimately, I’d advise trusting your instincts as you seek a rewarding and replenishing experience with visual art,” says Vollmann. “Be mindful of whatever holds your attention, as well as of your physical and emotional responses to the art.”
Whether you view virtual art exhibitions online or visit museums and galleries in person, your chosen cultural intervention has the potential to be beneficial for your mental health.
“I believe that the importance of art cannot be overstated,” says Vollmann. “We are living in difficult times, and struggles with mental health are on the rise. The exhibits of museums and galleries can provide a sanctuary of sorts from the chaos and stress of our daily lived experiences, and, conversely, they can help us to face and make meaning of the struggles that we face.”