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Art Gallery


Mia Riedel
(peer-reviewed by Isil Bastug)
26 May 2023

Universities exist to foster the cognitive development of their students. They consequently seek to reduce students’ stress levels which are known to impact their intellectual performance. Paintings in lecture halls and sculptures in libraries are indeed much more than an aesthetic or entertaining addition to university buildings’ outfits. There is increasing evidence that art, just like nature, can help reduce stress and foster cognitive restoration. There are hence good reasons to go creative and introduce more art into universities.

The rate of perceived stress among university students is almost three times higher compared to the general population (Stallman, 2010) and is even further increased during examination periods (Bayram & Bilgel, 2008). Perceived stress can be defined as an internal tension ‘that results when person-environment transactions lead the individual to perceive a discrepancy (whether real or not) between the demands of a situation and the biological, psychological or social resources of the individual’ (Berto, 2014). High levels of perceived stress and mental exhaustion have been associated with a decrease in cognitive function and performance on intellectual tasks (Alexander et al, 2007; Beilock & Carr, 2005). Universities are institutions dedicated to cognitive development and students are evaluated on their performance on intellectual tasks. To ensure the best possible cognitive development and an accurate evaluation of it, universities should implement ways to reduce perceived stress among their students. 

It has been shown that the physical environment can have an impact on the stress level of an individual. While some environments enhance stress levels, others enable cognitive renewal and provide resources to effectively cope with stress (Lazarus & Folkman, 1992). The human species has an innate attraction to nature, a phenomenon referred to as biophilia (Fromm, 1964) and the interaction with it seems essential for human well-being and health (Wilson, 1984). Studies suggest that nature has restorative and stress-reducing effects on humans (B. Jiang et al, 2014). To enhance cognitive development and performance on cognitive tasks the stress-reducing and restorative qualities of nature could be implemented into university buildings through design interventions.

Biophilic design is an approach trying to mimic the qualities of nature in the built environment. A matrix has been developed to capture the specific qualities of nature providing restoration and stress relief among humans (Kellert, 2005). These qualities have typically been implemented through natural elements including indoor plants or green walls. For example, Amazon has integrated more than 40,000 plants into its headquaters in Seattle to create a direct link between nature and its urban offices to enhance performance and well-being of employees (Green, 2018). However, recent evidence suggests that the stress-reducing and restorative impact of biophilic design is not limited to the presence of natural elements but can be obtained through a more abstract implementation of nature’s qualities (Grace, 2020).

There is increasing evidence that visual art can help reduce stress among students and increase their performance on cognitive tasks. Visual art refers to any form of art that is primarily visual in nature including drawing, painting, sculpture and photography and can be used as an abstract implementation of biophilic design elements. It has been shown that visual art mirrors the qualities of complexity and variability found in nature that contribute to cognitive renewal (Grace, 2020). Furthermore similarly to nature, visual art seems to enable effective coping with stress through its ability to fascinate and distract the observer from stressors. Finally, through its engaging qualities, visual art enables a connection between people and places leading to a sense of belonging which positively impacts stress levels (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1986). The restorative and stress-reducing effects of visual art have been confirmed by several studies using qualitative methods to assess how individuals subjectively perceive and give meaning to their responses to visual art (Hartig et al, 1997) and by studies investigating physiological responses to visual art (Gray & Birrell, 2014). In the latter it was shown that the salivary cortisol levels and skin conductance decreased when exposed to visual art (Roger S. Ulrich et al, 1991). Both are stress indicators. Salivary cortisol is a hormone that is released into saliva when an individual is under stress. Skin conductivity is a measurement of the electrical conductivity of the skin. Skin conductivity increases when sweat is produced, this can occur due to the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system which is activated under stress. These findings suggest that more visual art should be integrated into university buildings as an abstract implementation of stress-reducing and restorative qualities of nature.

Implementing visual art into the university setting has several benefits compared to other biophilic elements. While plants and other natural elements require excessive care, the preservation of art requires little effort. Furthermore integrating visual art, allows artists to display their work. The visual art displayed in universities could be the work of art students. Implemented in that way, visual art could have a positive impact on university students as observers and as artists. Exhibiting the students work on campus has been done before. The University of Westminster for example, exhibits its students’ work in the London Gallery West at the heart of its Harrow Campus. However, instead of limiting the exhibition to a gallery, the art could be exhibited in study spaces for increased benefit. Universities without art departments, could collaborate with art universities. That also exists. The Stockholm School of Economics for instance, collaborates with academic institutions such as the Royal Institute of Art, KTH School of Architecture and Södertörn University to exhibit art in their university building. Other universities could follow their example. While other biophilic elements can be costly, such a collaboration could result in a cost-free implementation of visual art into the university setting. 

Visual art can enhance performance through its restorative and stress-reducing qualities while promoting the work of art students and can easily be integrated into university buildings. Therefore, there should be more art in universities. 


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