Study suggests that viewing online works of art can be just as beneficial to one’s health as visiting a gallery in person.
The digital revolution is reaching all corners of society, including the art world. In recent decades, the number of people visiting art museums in the US has been falling. With the pandemic still making in-person visits difficult or impossible, many museums have moved their exhibits and activities online. While waiting for things to open up again, could we benefit from viewing artwork virtually?
Studies have shown that visiting art museums can have mental health benefits. Art can satisfy a basic need for visual expression, activate reward systems in the brain the same as eating and exercise do, and provide an opportunity to contemplate and find meaning. Finally, viewing in galleries and museums can provide a space for social engagement, resulting in reduced loneliness and anxiety and improved physical health.
Despite the benefits, museum attendance in the United States has been falling over the past few decades. The most significant drop occurred between 1982 and 2012 when rates decreased by more than 17 percent among younger Americans. Because of the widespread closure of museums during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, attendance dropped even lower.
A recently released study in Frontiers in Psychology concluded that participants still experienced positive outcomes from viewing art digitally during the pandemic. Virtual exhibitions had similar effects on viewers as physical visits before the pandemic, providing similar stress-reduction and relaxation benefits. Specifically, the study found that self-reported stress and systolic blood pressure “decreased by 5.8mmHg” after virtual art exhibitions were completed.
“Several studies have demonstrated the positive effects of art on viewers, including elevated mood, decreased worry and tension, and an enhanced sense of well-being and happiness,” according to Sarah Vollmann. She is an art therapist and licensed clinical social worker. She gave her view that the social benefits of visiting a museum or art gallery include reduced feelings of isolation.
Finding meaningful artwork online is vital for virtual viewers to achieve similar emotional and physical outcomes as their in-person counterparts. Because not all art has the same positive effects, it’s critical to consider why an individual is drawn to a particular piece – nostalgia, joy, or admiration, etc. The benefits also depend on the viewer’s emotional state; if they are feeling anxious, success may depend on finding works that resonate and can provide a distraction or allow the view to “lose themselves” in it. Finding works of art that speak to those visualizing it requires a viewer to trust their instincts and be mindful of their emotional and physical responses when looking at the pieces.
Vollmann elaborated that museum and gallery exhibitions offer a “sanctuary” from the hustle and bustle and stress of daily life. On the flip side, they can equip individuals to deal with and find significance in adversity.
Whether viewing art virtually or physically, there’s no denying the potential mental health benefits of exploring these pieces. Viewing art offers an escape from everyday routine, allowing one to slow down and be more present. This is the practice of mindfulness, which has far-reaching health benefits. It can fuel creativity and inspiration and improve overall well-being, particularly in these trying times.