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Art Therapy's HeARTache

It’s probably not a heart attack (yet), but it’s at least heartburn.

©2010 "Take Care of Your Heart, You Might Just Need It." Courtesy of C. Malchiodi, PhD
Source: ©2010 "Take Care of Your Heart, You Might Just Need It." Courtesy of C. Malchiodi, PhD

In February, I explained how the profession of art therapy gained a spotlight from an unlikely source—a member of the current White House Administration Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence. According to her White House web page, Mrs. Pence hopes to “bring attention to issues facing children and families by shining a spotlight on the mental health profession of art therapy” via her very visible national role. More recently, Mrs. Pence publicly unveiled her art therapy initiative called “Healing with the HeART” to an invited, select audience on October 18, 2017, at Florida State University where an art therapy graduate training program is housed.

Reactions from the art therapy community to Mrs. Pence’s art therapy initiative have been mixed at best. Earlier this year, the American Art Therapy Association (AATA, Inc.) elected leadership publicly expressed enthusiasm for her support on social media; at the October unveiling, support for Mrs. Pence’s role as an art therapy spokesperson was announced without vote or formal discussion from the current AATA membership. Many members of the association, credentialed art therapists and graduate students have expressed their opposition to an AATA leadership’s actions to support Mrs. Pence’s role as the spokesperson for the profession of art therapy. Some have voiced objections to any collaboration between the national organization and a member of the current White House administration, citing the implications for human rights, a core value inherent to ethical practice; others simply feel that their profession has been “hijacked” without their consent or input. At the association’s recent annual conference in November, discussions were intense and included protests aimed at the AATA leadership’s actions, culminating in several prominent art therapists refusing honors and awards given for outstanding service and contributions to the field. Many months before these refusals, long-time member and art therapy pioneer Dr. Maxine Borowsky Jung declined her Honorary Life Member Award [the AATA’s highest honor] in protest of the Association’s decision to ally with a member of the current White House Administration.

In brief, strong opinions have emerged because of the current platform of the Trump/Pence White House, including stances on women's rights, healthcare, LBGTQ issues, immigration and human rights in general. In a previous post, I shared some of the important ethical dilemmas involved in any alliance with an individual of political celebrity and how other professional groups have met similar challenges; both the American Counseling Association and the American Psychological Association faced similar ethics questions involving human rights in recent years. AATA leadership’s choice continues to be discussed by Art Therapists for Human Rights on Facebook, a group that now has more than 1600 members who are exploring the implications of the national organization’s stance.

Vogue reporter Michelle Ruiz makes a key observation that illuminates at least some of the dissonance about the Pence art therapy initiative: “In something of a departure from past First and Second Ladies who set out to combat a pressing problem (like Michelle Obama and childhood obesity, Jill Biden and supporting military families, and Nancy Reagan declaring war on drugs), Pence is attempting to “elevate” the lesser-known profession of art therapy and raise awareness for the practice…” Mrs. Pence has been allowed and in fact, encouraged to take on the role of spokesperson for an entire profession rather than be accepted as an advocate for a “cause” as do most First and Second Ladies of the past. This is where I have the most cognitive dissonance, not only because the wider professional community was not consulted in advance, but also because the role of spokesperson requires an in-depth knowledge of a field and its theories and practice (such as an association president). In contrast, taking on the role of an advocate for a cause would be somewhat less contentious simply because the “spotlight” is not aimed at one professional group in particular. For example, a cause might focus on the importance of the creative arts or visual art in healthcare and mental health; in contrast to the professional practice of art therapy, it could take on a specific application of one or more of the arts in addressing a prominent societal challenge such as posttraumatic stress, autism, addictions, or any number of key issues.

While Mrs. Pence is not my first choice to take on this type of arts-based advocacy, I do understand the importance of “reaching across the aisle” and her right to champion a personally chosen cause. I accept that she has a valid interest in how art functions as a change agent as well as a potential form of treatment for those in need. And while I am disappointed in how AATA leadership has handled this situation so far, there is still time and opportunity to adjust the direction taken and decisions made and to introduce a solution-focused, therapeutic compromise.

Despite art therapy’s struggles for recognition and parity with other mental health and healthcare professions, like many other practitioners, I am not greedy for any professional spotlight unless it is well-considered and inclusive of ethics and values of therapeutic practice as well as all stakeholders. I do understand how attractive that spotlight can be, especially when it illuminates a field that has often been misunderstood and overlooked. But it is now time to step back and admit that it has also blinded the vision necessary to heal the "heartache" that currently divides the art therapy community. Let's redirect that light to clarify the role of human rights in our work as art therapists and manifest the courage to move beyond this very shiny spotlight of professional gain.


Ruiz, M. (October 18, 2017). In other health care news, Second Lady Karen Pence announces art therapy as her cause. Retrieved on November 28, 2017 at

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