Even in the beautiful new building viewing the Cunningham Dax Collection is not an enjoyable experience. It is an emotionally unsettling experience but enjoyment is not the purpose of the exhibition. There is an educational purpose to this collection; this is not just another art gallery.
The collection is named after its founder Dr Eric Cunningham Dax who in 1946 pioneered the place of art therapy in mainstream psychiatric treatment. I’d been to the Cunningham Dax Collection before in 2010 when it was still located in some old buildings in the hard to find location in the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Royal Park Campus (see my previous post about the old location).
Now Cunningham Dax Collection has a new location at the Department of Neuroscience on Melbourne University’s main campus. The new building still has the same basic facilities as in the old one, reception, the gallery space, the education resource centre, multimedia gallery, but this time it has been purpose built and beautifully designed. There is a spectacular 6-story light well in the middle of the gallery making the experience of viewing the exhibition as comfortable as possible.
The current exhibitions are “Selected works from the collection” and “Hide & Seek: Self Portraits from the collection.” The selected work from the collection shows the range of art therapy from diagnostic to disaster relief. There are examples of the “draw a picture of a tree” section of the Diagnostic Drawing Series (DDS) or the House-tree-person test (HTP) along with moving works from the Holocaust collection.
I found “Hide & Seek: Self Portraits” a difficult experience – I didn’t want to look it for long. It is difficult to know what to think when viewing the art of the mentally ill in a gallery. Often this art is such a private experience or clinical experience. And this raises the question of the ability of the mentally ill to fully consent to exhibiting their art. Most of the artists on exhibited are referred to as “artist name withheld”; including the artist who drew their complaints about the conditions in 1963 Larundel clearly wanted to communicate about the “Larunhole cell” and the “dinner (revolting)”. And, Richard McLean, who trained Victorian College of the Arts and worked professionally as a graphic designer certainly wants his art exhibited to raise awareness and understanding of mental illness.
Those suffering from grief and trauma often want to communicate about their experience and they can do it clearly, even if they have no arts training. Sharing traumatic experiences, like the Tsunami Collection by Sri Lanka children, is a meaningful experience for both the artist and the viewer. You can easily see it from their point of view but this is more difficult with the mentally ill.
The art from the Cunningham Dax Collection makes me think that there is clear difference between art therapy for grief and art therapy for mental illness. The broad application of art therapy for grief, trauma, to mental illness makes it appear like a panacea. However much I love art I am suspicious of claims of panaceas. Perhaps we need to think of art as a tonic, a boost, a refresher, as in something that lifts the spirits or makes somebody feel better generally, rather than a therapy. We should all regularly do art and it will make us feel better.
In a recent systematic review of art therapy J. Leckey notes: “Although participation in creative arts is believed to have mental health and social benefits for individuals, the evidence base is weak and a major factor seems to be the lack of clarity of the concepts (well-being, mental illness/ health and creative arts), as how can something be measured if you are not clear on what it is that is being measured.” (J. Leckey “The therapeutic effectiveness of creative activities on mental well-being: a systematic review of the literature” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 2011, n.18 p.508)
“This review highlights the need for further research into the effects of creative arts and to clearly identify what is meant by mental well-being in a more systematic and structured way.” So there is still a purpose for the research carried out at the Dax Centre.