Arts therapy is based on the belief that art practices and materials can help build, restore and maintain the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of people. It encompasses visual art making, drama, dance and movement. Arts therapists provide a safe environment that encourages people to examine issues in whatever media they choose. It differs from traditional art production in emphasising the creative and meaning-making processes of an art over the end product. Through using non-verbal communication, arts therapy is believed to help people to better cope with trauma and stress, develop their judgement and forge healthier relationships.
Thirteen-year-old Jesse Jackson’s autism meant he was unable to communicate verbally, but was able to do so musically. In 2014 he attended weekly sessions at Auckland’s Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre. As music therapist Claire Molyneux tapped out piano rhythms, Jesse responded and became noticeably calmer than before the session.
Music therapy uses music to help the healing and personal growth of people with disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, autism and Alzheimer’s disease. In music therapy sessions people express themselves musically however they can, using their body, voice or musical instruments. This can reduce a person’s sense of isolation and provide them with new skills, such as motor and social skills.
Art therapist Suzanne Scarrold said in 2013: ‘Art therapy can access deeper levels of feeling than you may be able to put into words. It is a way of reaching those feelings in the subconscious.’1 She used arts therapy to help new refugees cope with the trauma they had experienced before arriving in New Zealand.
Arts and music therapists have their own professional organisations. In 2014 these were the Australian and New Zealand Art Therapy Association and Music Therapy New Zealand. Arts and music therapists require a master’s degree in their chosen discipline. Auckland’s Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design offers these courses.
Breaking down barriers
In the early 2000s a number of non-government arts organisations advocated on behalf of people who experienced barriers to engaging and participating in the arts, both as creators and as audience members.
Art Access Aotearoa Whakahauhau Katoa o Hanga helped people with physical, sensory or intellectual disabilities connect with individuals and organisations in the community and professional arts sectors. It also used the arts as a tool to support prisoner rehabilitation.
Auckland theatre company Interacting Theatre put on performances using actors with disabilities to tell stories that challenged cultural stereotypes about people with disabilities. In 2011 it inaugurated the annual InterACT Disability Arts Festival.