Community arts programs

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Expert Opinion

Strategies with this rating are recommended by credible, impartial experts but have limited research documenting effects; further research, often with stronger designs, is needed to confirm effects.

Health Factors  
Date last updated

Community arts programs, also called participatory arts programs, include visual, media, and performing arts activities open to interested community members. Community-based organizations or art centers offer programs for community members to create artwork through collaboration and interactions with others. Programs can focus on building community, increasing awareness of the value of the arts, developing creativity, or addressing common issues within a community.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Improved social networks

  • Increased social capital

  • Increased social cohesion

  • Increased community involvement

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Improved mental health

  • Reduced stigma

  • Increased self-confidence

What does the research say about effectiveness?

Community arts programs are a suggested strategy to increase social support1, 2, 3 and develop social capital and social cohesion throughout communities1, 4, 5, 6, 7. Such programs may also promote community involvement4, 5, 7, 8. Available evidence suggests community arts programs and creative activities can improve mental health for participants2, 9, 10, including delinquent youth11. However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects.

UK- and Canada-based studies demonstrate that group-based community visual arts and music programs may improve physical and mental health outcomes and increase community connections among older adults10, 12, 13. A study of Porch Light, a Philadelphia-based mural art project, suggests that residents are more likely to perceive high levels of neighborhood cohesion and trust, and less likely to stigmatize individuals with mental illness in neighborhoods with participatory art projects6.

Creative extracurricular activities such as music, dance, drama, and visual arts, frequently part of community arts programs, can improve self-confidence and self-esteem, and increase positive behaviors among participating children and adolescents14. Community-centered arts and culture efforts are recommended to increase social cohesion and cultural assets for communities of color and with low incomes15. New York City-based studies suggest that neighborhoods with low incomes and high levels of racial diversity can experience the greatest social well-being and health benefits from arts programs and cultural resources; however, neighborhoods with low incomes have relatively fewer resources available than those with higher incomes16, 17.

A case study suggests community arts activities can be incorporated in reentry services to improve the well-being of individuals formerly incarcerated18. Arts-based programming in the public safety sector can promote empathy, understanding, and well-being, and increase quality of place in communities; such community arts programming can be designed to support prevention efforts (e.g., engaging law enforcement and community members in community theatre) or rehabilitation and reintegration efforts (e.g., horticultural programs in correctional facilities and fine arts career training for people formerly incarcerated)19.

How could this strategy impact health disparities? This strategy is rated likely to decrease disparities.
Implementation Examples

Several states have Arts Boards that promote art in the community programs20. Examples of community art programs include Free City Mural Festival in Flint, MI21, Mill Hill Arts Village activities in Macon, GA22, and Groundswell in New York City23. The Woodland Indian Arts Initiative in Wisconsin24 and the Native Arts Initiative25 are examples of efforts to support traditional arts and cultural assets in Native American communities. As of June 2020, the City of Boulder Office of Arts and Culture launched the Creative Neighborhood: COVID-19 Work Projects, which has funded 66 art projects to support artists and help neighbors stay connected and recover26.

Project HEAL (Health. Equity. Art. Learning.) is a cultural blueprint for both urban and rural communities that is designed to activate the potential of community arts and cultural assets to support health, well-being, capacity and engagement in communities7. Animating Democracy provides guides27 and a framework28 of its Arts for Change project that promotes appreciation of creative work among artists, funders, and community members at the intersection of participatory arts and civic engagement, community development, and justice.

Implementation Resources

NEA - National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Animating Democracy - Animating Democracy. A program of Americans for the Arts: Fostering civic engagement through arts and culture.

Arts for Change guide - Animating Democracy. Working guide papers on Arts for Change.


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1 NEA-Strategic plan 2014 - National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Art works for America: Strategic plan, FY 2014-2018. Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Arts (NEA); 2014.

2 Kelaher 2013 - Kelaher M, Dunt D, Berman N, Curry S, Joubert L, Johnson V. Evaluating the health impacts of participation in Australian community arts groups. Health Promotion International. 2013: Epub ahead of print.

3 Stuckey 2010 - Stuckey HL, Nobel J. The connection between art, healing, and public health: A review of current literature. American Journal of Public Health. 2010;100(2):254-63.

4 Lewis 2013a - Lewis F. Participatory art-making and civic engagement. Animating Democracy; 2013. A working guide to the landscape of arts for change.

5 Jones 2010 - Jones PM. Developing social capital: A role for music education and community music in fostering civic engagement and intercultural understanding. International Journal of Community Music. 2010;3(2):291-302.

6 Tebes 2015 - Tebes JK, Matlin SL, Hunter B, et al. Porch Light Program: Final evaluation report. The Consultation Center at Yale. Yale School of Medicine; 2015.

7 Project HEAL-Edmonds 2017 - Edmonds T, Persad P, Wendel M. Project HEAL: Health impact assessment. IDEAS xLab, Louisville Department of Public Health and Wellness, Commonwealth Institute of Kentucky. 2017.

8 Chung 2009 - Chung B, Jones L, Jones A, et al. Using community arts events to enhance collective efficacy and community engagement to address depression in an African American community. American Journal of Public Health. 2009;99(2):237-244.

9 Leckey 2011 - Leckey J. The therapeutic effectiveness of creative activities on mental well-being: A systematic review of the literature. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing. 2011;18(6):501-509.

10 Beauchet 2020 - Beauchet O, Bastien T, Mittelman M, Hayashi Y, Hau Yan Ho A. Participatory art-based activity, community-dwelling older adults and changes in health condition: Results from a pre–post intervention, single-arm, prospective and longitudinal study. Maturitas. 2020;134:8-14.

11 Rapp-Paglicci 2011 - Rapp-Paglicci L, Stewart C, Rowe W, Miller JM. Addressing the Hispanic delinquency and mental health relationship through cultural arts programming: A research note from the prodigy evaluation. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice. 2011;27(1):110-21.

12 Hallam 2012 - Hallam S, Creech A, Varvarigou M, McQueen H. Perceived benefits of active engagement with making music in community settings. International Journal of Community Music. 2012;5(2):115-174.

13 Phinney 2014 - Phinney A, Moody EM, Small JA. The effect of a community-engaged arts program on older adults' well-being. Canadian Journal on Aging. 2014;33(3):336-345.

14 Bungay 2013 - Bungay H, Vella-Burrows T. The effects of participating in creative activities on the health and well-being of children and young people: A rapid review of the literature. Perspectives in Public Health. 2013;133(1):44-52.

15 PolicyLink-Rose 2017 - Rose K, Daniel MH, Liu J. Creating change through arts, culture, and equitable development: A policy and practice primer. PolicyLink; 2017.

16 SIAP-Stern 2017 - Stern MJ, Seifert SC. The social wellbeing of New York City's neighborhoods: The contribution of culture and the arts. University of Pennsylvania Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP). 2017.

17 Foster 2016 - Foster N, Grodach C, Murdoch J. Neighborhood diversity, economic health, and the role of the arts. Journal of Urban Affairs. 2016;38(5):623-642.

18 Urban-Esthappan 2018 - Esthappan S. Art beyond bars: A case study of the People’s Paper Co-Op in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Urban Institute; 2018.

19 Urban-Ross 2016 - Ross C. Examining the ways arts and culture intersect with public safety: Identifying current practice and opportunities for further inquiry. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute; 2016.

20 NASAA - National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA). State arts agency directory.

21 Flint Mural - Brown A. Free City Mural Festival to transform south Flint, celebrate city's massive art project. Flintside. October 9, 2019.

22 CCB-Macon - Creative Community Builders (CCB), Macon Arts Alliance. Community building in east Macon: It takes a village. February 2018.

23 Groundswell - Goundswell. Art for change.

24 WAB-Woodland - Wisconsin Arts Board (WAB). Woodland Indian Arts Initiative.

25 NAI - First Nations Development Institute. Native Arts Initiative (NAI).

26 Boulder-COVID-19 projects - City of Boulder Office of Arts and Culture. COVID-19 work projects.

27 Arts for Change guide - Animating Democracy. Working guide papers on Arts for Change.

28 AD-Aesthetic perspectives - Animating Democracy (AD). Aesthetic perspectives: Attributes of excellence in arts for change. 2017.