Anita Walker betting culture is good for your health

With a portion of the state’s casino revenues, the Massachusetts Cultural Council is testing whether arts and culture can be prescribed just like medicine.

The organization is running three pilot projects where health providers, counselors, and social workers prescribe cultural activities for those with whom they work. The goal is to see whether going to the zoo, visiting a museum, or attending the symphony can have beneficial health impacts.

Anita Walker, the executive director of the Cultural Council, is convinced the experiment will work, in part because the health benefits of cultural activities have been documented in a number of studies. She’s using a portion of the revenues her agency receives from casino gambling to pay the cost of the pilot project prescriptions, but in the long run she hopes health insurers will come to see the health benefits of arts and culture and pick up the tab themselves.

“Maybe we can find a way to convince insurance companies that this is a good investment because it will save money,” Walker said on The Codcast from CommonWealth magazine. “You know insurance companies will pay for your gym membership. Insurance companies will give you a benefit if you don’t smoke. If they can see the benefit of cultural participation as a protective factor and a prevention against much more expensive consequences, maybe we can find another resource stream for our organizations.”

Walker says one of the chief benefits of arts and cultural activities is a feeling of participating in something bigger than oneself. “You can’t pick up a newspaper without reading about the epidemic of social isolation and loneliness, which leads to depression and even serious, serious physical health conditions like heart disease. I read recently that social isolation and loneliness have the same impact on your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” Walker said.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council’s pilot projects are part of a broader effort, called Culture RX, to widen the reach of arts and cultural organizations across the state. The effort started more than two years ago with a partnership with the Department of Transitional Assistance to provide free or reduced-price access to arts and cultural activities to anyone with an electronic benefits transfer, or EBT, card — the delivery vehicle for food stamps. More than 250 arts and cultural organizations are participating in the program and the cards have been used to gain entrance to a museum or theater more than 370,000 times. Institutions participating in the Boston area include the American Repertory Theater, the Boston Ballet, and the Boston Children’s Museum.

The Cultural Council is now launching a similar relationship with the Massachusetts Health Connector, an agency that provides subsidized health insurance to some 200,000 people in the state. Anyone with a Connector card can attend an event or program at roughly 100 participating arts or cultural institutions for free or at a reduced price. The participating cultural institutions include the Barrington Stage Co., Jacob’s Pillow, MassMoCA, and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

The programs with the Department of Transitional Assistance and the Connector are being run with no state funds. The arts and culture organizations are providing free or reduced-price access to their facilities in a bid to broaden their audience and fulfill their nonprofit goals.

For the three pilot projects, the Cultural Council is covering the cost of admission, using a portion of the proceeds (an estimated $750,000 this year) the agency receives from the state’s two casinos – MGM in Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor.

One pilot is being run in western Massachusetts. The MACONY Pediatric Group of Greater Barrington along with the Austen Riggs Center, a psychiatric treatment center in Stockbridge, are doing the prescribing and 15 cultural organizations are participating, including the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Berkshire Theatre Group, the Mass Audubon Berkshire Wildlife Sanctuaries, and Mass MoCA.

A second pilot is up and running in Springfield, with the Caring Health Center, a community health center, is writing prescriptions for the Enchanted Circle Theater, the Community Music School of Springfield, and the Springfield Museums.

A third pilot is in development with the Franklin Park Zoo and the Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center. The idea is to give free zoo memberships to some 125 families with new children to incentivize the parents to bring their new baby back for preventive care.

Later this year, a statewide test of the arts prescription program is expected to roll out along with a third-party research effort designed to report on its effectiveness.  Walker said the initial program targeting people with EBT cards proved to her that people who often have difficulty making ends meet financially have a hunger for cultural experiences.

“That really spoke loudly to us. There is a human need for this kind of experience and that it is beneficial,” she said. “This isn’t a new idea that there are things beyond medication that can be beneficial to people and helpful. We’ve seen health centers prescribing fresh fruits and vegetables, prescribing a yoga class or an exercise class. So we’re just adding something else to the medical kit of community health workers that might make a difference.”

BRUCE MOHL


BEACON HILL

Rep. Ayanna Pressley decried hate and white supremacy in a passionate address at Boston’s MLK Memorial Breakfast, a speech Gov. Charlie Baker referred to as a “rant” before apologizing for that description. (Boston Globe) Baker’s quip drew blowback from a number of elected officials, including Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins, who began a tweet, “Here’s a rant for you,” and went on to list the lack of black representation in important roles, including the absence of any blacks from Baker’s cabinet. (Boston Herald)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Joan Vennochi takes a tour of Western Mass. with Sen. Eric Lesser, who is touting its affordable housing as a solution to the pricey woes of Greater Boston. (Boston Globe)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

With impeachment proceedings set to begin today, the White House and Senate Republican leaders are pulling out all the stops to figure out ways to block former national security advisor John Bolton from testifying. (Washington Post)  One of the lawyers representing the president, Harvard law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz, spoke with WGBH News about his role on Trump’s legal team. The overarching argument Dershowitz and Trump lawyers put forward in their brief — that there are no grounds for impeachment because the House did not accuse Trump of committing any ordinary crime — defies broad legal consensus, with one scholar calling the argument “constitutional nonsense.” (New York Times)

Sheriffs from around the country have rallied behind President Trump, and Bristol County’s Tom Hodgson is a leader of the pack. (Boston Globe)

ELECTIONS

A new Suffolk/Boston Globe poll shows Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden running neck-and-neck among likely New Hampshire Democratic voters. (Boston Globe)

The New York Times endorsed two candidatesAmy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren — in the Democratic primary for president, a move that has drawn some praise and lots of heat. Why stop there, says Washington Post humorist Alexandra Petri, who does them one better, or rather 10 better, and endorses all 12 Democrats.

IMMIGRATION

A federal judge put the deportation of an Iranian student attending Northeastern University on hold for 48 hours. (CommonWealth)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

A nip bottle ban, sponsored by Republican Rep. Randy Hunt of Sandwich, will get its day on Beacon Hill Wednesday. (Cape Cod Times)

EDUCATION

UMass President Marty Meehan says 2020 doesn’t feel like just another year. (CommonWealth)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

State officials are looking to rein in urgent care centers, which are growing but lack even a clear definition. (Boston Globe)

Studies suggest marijuana use might pose cardiovascular disease risks and urge more study of the question. (Boston Globe)

The Dana Farber Cancer Institute is preparing to open an outpatient center in Methuen. (Eagle-Tribune)

ARTS/CULTURE

A documentary about the 2018 Merrimack Valley gas explosions, which was shot by students at the Four Rivers Charter Public School in Greenfield, is being shown in Haverhill. (Eagle-Tribune)

The Essex Shipbuilding Museum is closing in on its fundraising goal to preserve an 18th century barn. (Gloucester Times)

Fall River Public School students took part in a district-wide project for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, with about 9,000 students contributing to a piece of artwork installed in Government Center. (Herald News)

TRANSPORTATION

Ari Ofsevit of TransitMatters offers the MBTA a detailed guide on how to improve replacement bus service during shutdowns of the transit system. (CommonWealth)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

A Berkshire Eagle editorial slams Berkshire County DA Andrea Harrington for ignoring public records requests of the paper, which came to light when Harrington’s general counsel and public records officer quit in protest over the move.

The Diocese of Fall River has announced that two retired priests have been suspended from ministry due to separate allegations of sexual abuse of a minor, said to have occurred decades ago. (Standard-Times)

Gail Garringer, a former juvenile court judge, says the juvenile justice system can and should serve older youth. (CommonWealth)

MEDIA

Talk about click bait. The Daily Item of Lynn runs this headline — “Meghan and Harry just wild about living in Lynn” — with no story underneath.