This article was first published in FORTUNE.
No one likes going to a pharmacy to fill a prescription, but filling one at a fine arts museum is an entirely different proposition. Launching its partnership with the Médecins Francophones du Canada (MFdC) last November, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) has filled 185 prescriptions, each one granting up to two adults and two children admission to peruse its collections of old and new masters, visit an exhibition, or join a guided tour. The art antidote is already popular enough that at least one person has presented a doctor’s handwritten chicken scratch to ticket agents.
Physicians who participate in the MMFA-MFdC Museum Prescriptions program are given an official pad of 50 slips, which they can prescribe or refill at their own discretion. According to resident art therapist Stephen Legari—the first appointed full-time to a museum in North America—art can be a supplemental remedy for a host of ailments, from mental health disorders (such as depression or anxiety) to Alzheimer’s disease to cardiac arrhythmia. Art for heart’s sake, if you will. Or perhaps a family caring for a unwell child could benefit from some visual therapy. “These people are heroes,” says Legari. “Maybe they need a day off.”
After handing over the prescription at the museum, patients become patrons who are free to be revitalized through art and reflection. “Hopefully they’re also going to find that on a Saturday we have free activities for families, or on a Sunday we have the Art Hive, a social studio for mixed population, drop-in style, free to the public twice a week,” Legari says. On Thursdays, people over the age of 65 can take advantage of free access to the museum’s collections and various workshops in the Michel de la Chenelière International Atelier for Education and Art Therapy, one of the largest purpose-built spaces of its kind in the world.
Before the program launched, the MFdC invited Legari to its annual conference to exhibit works created in art therapy sessions. As these compositions are guarded under confidentiality, Legari put a call out through the Centre of Excellence on Partnership with Patients and the Public (CEPPP) for participants willing to make something explicitly for the exhibition. The invitation struck a personal chord with Marie-France Langlet, one of the eight patients and caregivers to respond, many of whom had been affected by cancer. In 2004, her then 9-year-old son got a diagnosis of acute nonlymphocytic leukemia. When he relapsed after several rounds of chemotherapy, she took him to see a therapist, who asked him to draw a picture of what being cured would look like to him.
His pencil-crayon drawing depicts a grassy plane with a solitary flower in full bloom. “The minuscule flower in his drawing was obviously him with his curly hair,” says Langlet. Above it, two blue clouds have released a neat pattern of raindrops that dangle above a teeming, six-colored rainbow. “We worked with this rainbow and these colors all along the treatment,” she explains. The red color, she would tell him, represented the chemo that would be good for his blood. Blue was for the treatment that would help his lungs. “So for me, art was something that meant something to a patient, especially a child.”
Langlet’s son was declared cancer-free in 2013, and since then she’s worked as a patient partner with Sainte-Justine Hospital, CEPPP, and other initiatives. “I saw this opportunity with the museum as a continuous improvement exercise to become an even better patient partner,” she explains. With the other participants, she attended sessions based around a theme of contrasts that began with a guided tour and led to reflection and creation. In one of the workshops, Langlet painted a mask black and covered it with opposing words. “I’ve been through so many contradictory feelings from hope to despair, and even that freaking thing between remission and relapse,” she says. “I think I wanted to tell doctors that there is so much contradiction going on.”
Art may be subjective, but the doctors found the work exhibited by Langlet and the other group members unequivocally moving. “It was very touching,” says Dr. Hélène Boyer, vice president of MFdC, on seeing the exhibition. For Boyer, museum prescriptions offer physicians a way to connect with patients on this more emotional level. “We always ask ourselves: What more can I do? From now on, we can at least offer a moment of happiness,” Boyer said during the announcement last fall.
It might sound saccharine, but studies have shown that a trip to a museum increases levels of cortisol and serotonin, a hormonal uptick that boosts a sense of well-being. More than 10 clinical studies supervised by the MMFA Art and Health Committee are underway, including investigations on the benefits of art therapy for breast cancer patients and survivors, voluntary immigrants, and victims of violence. A recently published study by the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and Concordia University shows that visits and workshops at the MMFA contributed to a reduction in anxiety for people with eating disorders. Released last year, the results of a MMFA collaboration with RUIS McGill Centre of Excellence on Longevity and the Jewish General Hospital that evaluated the effects of museum activities for people 65 and older proved so successful that it has now been launched with 10 museums and institutions internationally, including in Australia, France, Israel, and Singapore.
Museum prescriptions are one facet of a growing “social prescribing” movement that first took hold in the United Kingdom, where doctors can now prescribe activities like boxing class and gardening to their patients. In December, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto launched a similar initiative, providing free entry to its Bat Cave, dinosaur halls, and other galleries for those with referrals. Legari hopes that the MMFA’s one-year pilot project will eventually be made more widely available, with more resources for independent therapeutic visits and longer-term alliances with doctors and patients.
“Art will bring you to a different level,” Langlet says. “I don’t know how to express it, but it brings you to a different level of understanding who you are as a human being and what you’re experiencing.”