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Photo: The Nature Studio, An Interactive Exhibition of Artworks by Service Users of St. John of God North East Services (Ireland) for Culture Night, An Tain Arts Centre, Dundalk, County Louth

Research highlights the importance of the artwork or object in helping people make connections and tell their own stories. The research refers to the “symbolic potential” objects have, and uses psychosocial theories to explore this. I have seen this theory in action when looking at artworks and objects with people who, when given permission to speculate and make open and personal responses, will make strong connections and often refer to their own life experiences and emotions. The artwork or object is a thing outside of the individual and as such allows us to project inner thoughts and feelings onto it, talking about what is personal without the fear of direct exposure that being asked directly to talk about oneself might bring. Telling stories about one’s life is often the basis of psychological therapies and I believe that gallery collections can work in this way too (Leisa Gray, ‘What Have Art Galleries got to do with our Mental Health?’)

An art gallery is a permissive space for discussing human experience, a place to reflect upon personal and social relationships. As an environment for both speculation and discussion, it can broaden perspective and offer a supporting structure for considering ideas that can impact an overall sense of well being. The gallery can also be considered a studio within which to meet our selves, as we encounter its surroundings stimulating different kinds of subjective experiences.

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Photo: Tree Prints from The Nature Studio

During the course of a presentation to the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists, American art therapist Joan Phillips (University of Oklahoma) outlined how galleries could be utilised within the practice of art therapy. She discussed ways in which galleries could be understood as both interactive spaces for the activation of human experience, and holding environments that evoke memory and association. Overall, art galleries are places for responsiveness through conversation, reflection and art production.

Evidence suggests that art gallery based interventions offer a safe environment for people to develop narratives that promote recovery and well being. In their article “The Art Gallery as a Resource for Recovery for People who have Experienced Psychosis,” Colbet, Cooke, Camic and Springham (2013) discuss how personal stories evoked in art galleries, contradict the imposition of therapeutic narratives in health care systems, where the service user may feel they are receiving treatment rather than co-participating. Accessing the arts within a gallery setting, strengthens validation, empathy, conversation, commonality and facilitates more genuine relationships between participants and therapists. The value of an art gallery is its location outside the realm of health care services. The art education and critical analysis engendered within art galleries also offers a venue for intellectual reasoning, contemplation, and debate.

Through engagement with artworks, artists, gallery staff, and art materials art therapy participants are offered a focus within which to explore life situations. It is also an opportunity to experiment and explore different ways of understanding, through examining diverse frames of reference. An art gallery mediates new knowledge, experiences and relationships evoking personal and social themes.


Ideas for Making a Gallery a Therapeutic Space

1.  Visit the art gallery ahead of time and find out about the exhibition you are going to see. Talk to gallery staff and research the artists, their materials, and research information about the artworks.

2. Decide what aspects of the exhibition you are going to visit. You might select a few key pieces to discuss, in regards to themes, materials, imagery or artists represented.

3. Bring along portable art materials, which can be distributed to participants, for the purpose of recording creative responses, ideas, notes, etc. Hardcover sketchbooks facilitate walking and mark making.

4. Encourage participants to create responses to the artworks. This can be done through both words and images. Any questions, reflections, opinions, etc. can also be included within participant’s sketchbooks.

5. Find a quiet place within the gallery to meet and discuss the exhibition. Many art galleries have public education rooms or studios which can be booked for this purpose. Additional art materials can be distributed to document imagery related to the exhibition.

6.  An art gallery is a place to voice disagreement or controversy. It is vital for participants to have an opportunity to voice their opinions, as they may not have had positive experiences of asserting their point of view in the past within a public space.

7. Pay special attention to exhibition literature, as there may be text and images within gallery brochures, which will evoke further discussion.

8. Exhibition postcards, free magazines, etc. can be taken away as a souvenir of the gallery visit.

9. Community education staff from the gallery can offer a welcoming atmosphere and contribute additional content to enhance your visit.

10. A field trip to an art gallery can become a punctuation point within a series of art therapy sessions, whereby the visit to the gallery illuminates therapeutic themes, which can then be further explored in subsequent art therapy sessions.


1. What have art galleries got to do with our mental health? By Leisa Gray

2. Colbert, S. , Cooke, A., Camic, P., Springham, N. (2013) “The Art Gallery as a Resource for Recovery for People who have Experienced Psychosis”, The Arts in Psychotherapy, 40, pp. 250-256

3. Arts and Health Ireland

A website of arts and health information, news, case studies and research in Ireland.