Ethics in Exhibition of Art Therapy Projects

Topics: Art Therapy

While the client is engaging in art therapy resulting in self-exploration, self-expression, catharsis, and clinical therapy; the opportunity may arise to hold an exhibition of work. Spaniol (1990) outlines three guiding principles for exhibiting art done in therapy and states you should balance opportunity, safety, and empowerment. A literature review considers the history behind exhibitions; the differences in commercial exhibitions versus exhibitions in the context of art therapy, the benefits and empowerment of the opportunity to exhibit; and the safety, and ethical challenges of the exhibition.

These challenges are met with methods of ensuring your client the most positive and informed experience.

Keywords: Art therapy, Exhibition, Ethics

Traditionally exhibition is used commercially to gain monetary compensation or to receive commentary on fine artworks rooted in special interests or thematic concepts. Here I will explore the exhibition in the context of clinical Art Therapy and the differences between a conventional artist in a gallery space versus a client in an organized exhibition rooted in therapeutic advancements.

Going from discussing the impact in the history of documentation through the Prinzhorn Collection, to the modern exhibition. I cover the benefits these exhibits may provide for the client, the challenges to ethics they incite, to methods of overcoming them to provide a safe and meaningful showcase for the client.

History of Exhibition

An Exhibition or Gallery refers to an event showcasing works of art or creative processes. Tschacher et al. (2011) discuss that: Showcasing artworks such as paintings, drawings, or sculptures; provokes cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and physiological responses for both the viewer and the artist (Tschacher et al.

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2011). Thqte neurocognitive act of communicating, observing, and creating artworks is a complex action that appears to be something only humans do (Tschacher et al. 2011).

In 1922 an art historian and psychologist Hanz Prinzhorn published a work titled, “Artistry of the Mentally Ill” (Salom, 2012). The work cited over 6000 artworks created by patients receiving treatment inside European mental asylums. This generated the movement that recognized art done by the mentally ill as its branch of the arts (Wiley, 2016). Without this piece of research the Art Therapy pioneers used as a stepping stone, we would not have such strong grounds in the validity of art therapy let alone the means to exhibit the works of the patient.

Born in 1931, Harriet Wadeson was one of these pioneers of Art Therapy. She worked towards creating the first AT master’s program while writing numerous articles and books; this qtincludes one of the first books in the field, Art Psychotherapy (Wiley, 2016). Wadeson was clear in her opinion of exhibition stating, “If the purpose of the art sessions is a form of psychotherapy, art exhibits of the work are not appropriate” (qtd. Vick, 2011). Luckily fis or the Art Therapists today, the ethics defined by the American Art Therapy Association choose instead to defer to the Judgment of the therapist (qt. Vick, 2011). The AATA suggests that the exhibition of artwork may be done provided it’s for the benefit of the client to disclose typically confidential information, and the client gives their informed/written consent (qtd. Vick, 2011).

Distinctions Between Traditional and Art Therapy Exhibitions

Salom (2012) in the Academic Journal of Creative Art Therapies states that conventional fine artists are usually invested in a topic. These topics can include but are not limited to; political commentary, culture, social commentary, and/or personal interests (Salom, 2012). Using their artwork as a vessel they convey a dialogue with the public perhaps to incite a new perspective on the topic. When attending an exhibit at a gallery artists give conversational frameworks evaluating the thematic experience as well as aesthetic experiences, and the commercial value of their work (Salom, 2012).

In comparison, the individual who creates in the art therapy context uses imagery, creative experiences, and art resources to process a transformational period. The body of work heavily influenced by mental health and well-being (Salom, 2012). These works produced in Art Therapy belong to those who often do not hold artistic positions in everyday life, but instead are engaging with themselves as individuals through art in this experience. The individual is not typically concerned with composition, technique, skill, or aesthetics in the way a conventional fine artist is. The individual instead is preoccupied with the experience of Art Therapy itself. The individual focuses on relationships between the creator and material, and/or between conscious and unconscious components (Salom, 2012).

I know that exhibitions of fine artists are typically large or small-scale events held in museums, galleries, or public forums. Not only have I been featured in galleries but for a time I held a position as a curator. My gallery was held in a public coffee shop and consisted of 20 pieces exchanged every 2 months. Honestly, there were no considerations of ethics as the submissions to be featured were open to the public, and what I know now as informed consent was implied upon choosing to send me your work. I choose groups based on matching aesthetics and I ran each artist’s works in sections with a choice given to them to have a placard with names, titles of works, sizes, artist statements, and business information. It was their choice to include social media or the services they provide. I did not censor these placards, I uniformly printed what the artist was comfortable sending and placed it alongside the work. Typically there is a little filter to what is presented and who is permitted to attend and freedom to submit commentary in the commercial artwork, instead, it is welcomed.

Vick (2011) it is stated that while Art therapy exhibitions are somewhat rare, small shows are organized “in-house” and are presented for social, therapeutic, and educational purposes. They approximately do not garner a large following of patrons from the commercial art world. While I disagree, A large percentage of Art Therapists would state that a majority of work created by patients does not have the aesthetic qualities that justify a larger exhibition than this. This, ethics, and the focus on art as therapy are the typical reasons the art made in sessions remains within the boundaries of the session (Vick, 2011).

Benefits of Exhibiting

The history, research, and practice of art therapy and exhibition show there is a benefit to exhibiting works for the patient and the community (Salom, 2012). This notion is heavily dependent on the exhibition being left in the hands of the Art Therapist facilitating the total decision-making process of the patient over the curator/gallery. The exhibitions themselves are clinically valuable if handled sensitively (Vick, 2011).

Both Vick (2012) and Salom (2011) cite American Art Therapist Susan Spaniol’s research on an exhibition of work for those with mental difficulties. Spaniol (1990) describes three guiding principles when exhibiting: Opportunity, Safety, and Empowerment. The opportunity to exhibit refers to an opportunity with oneself to explore (qt. Salom, 2012). This opportunity presents itself as a moment that clients can have as individuals by showcasing their works. The next guiding principle is safety; the need to present thoughtful safeguards to protect clients’ rights (qt. Vick, 2011). Safety refers to the care and attention required for a positive experience for both clients and the public during the exhibition (Salom, 2012). Safety concerns include the issues of confidentiality, informed consent, and ethics. The third and most important aspect Spaniol (1990) discusses is empowerment; the self-esteem that can generate from becoming visible through the art pieces like a vessel for communication. As I will discuss further when I talk about ethics, Moon (2006) states there are possible emotional achievements for clients through the empowering aspects of publicly exhibiting artworks. These opportunities perhaps reduce stigma and other biases while respecting the history of the client (Moon, 2006). Art therapy exhibits can restore power to individuals who have felt they have lost it such as domestic abuse victims, persons on the Autistic Spectrum, and many other populations. The gallery may also provide empowerment by creating a support system. Different populations engaged in these exhibitions such as; the artist/client, the art therapist, the families of the client, the gallery itself, and the community; play an important role in this (Salom 2012). Chief Executive – Val Huet of the British Association of Art Therapy can be quoted about the benefits of such exhibitions, “…. it gives them a feeling of empowerment as they are being treated as artists doing something rather than patients having something done to them” (Good 2009).

Ethics on Exhibiting

Building off Spaniol (1990) the safety and ethical treatment of the client is of utmost importance. When establishing an exhibition of the details of holding an exhibition like any other clinical intervention, the Art Therapist, ethically, must consider the individual client’s circumstances (Alter-Muri, 1994). Whether the exhibition is within an educational setting, public forum, clinic, or commercial venue such as a gallery; the Art Therapist must consider the benefits versus the potential problems that may arise in the exhibition (Vick, 2011). As of 2011 Moon discusses the idea that ethically, the Art Therapist must protect clients and artworks from the impact of sensationalism, abuse, and exploitation. As mentioned before this means taking into account special circumstances, biases, and stigmas of populations such as gender, sexuality, age, culture, or race. In addition to these individual circumstances, the Art Therapist must be aware of the details relating to the history of the client whether they be clinical like mental health such as disorders, personal factors like trauma, socioeconomic background, or family-related events and trauma (Vick, 2011).

This means how the work is publicly interpreted is an ethically difficult topic (Vick, 2011). The Art Therapist must take into account the client who will be providing the commentary (if any) on the art. Will the commentary be provided by the artist alone or be open to the public, what will be shared based on the history of the client, and from what perspectives will this work be seen? Art can be seen aesthetically, personally, or psychologically; determining what the client is seeking from the exhibition is vital. Note that all of these factors are solely up to the client, and these possibilities should be discussed in depth while briefing the client and gaining informed consent. The client must perceive that the act of exhibiting the work to the public is a shift from a very private event to a very public existence (Vick, 2011). As declared by the American Art Therapy Association (2011), Art therapistsclient must, “respect the rights of clients to make decisions and assist them in understanding the consequences of these decisions” (Vick, 2011).

After careful deliberation of public response, clients individual circumstances, and goals, if it is decided to proceed, the next thing to consider ethically in the exhibition is the privacy and confidentiality of the client. I have touched on this when discussing being aware of yclient’sents individual circumstances but it’s important to understand the ethics behind Psychotherapy, Art Therapy, and federal regulations like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act all regulate strict confidentiality of the client (Moon, 2011; & Vick, 2011). This includes questions likeand  What pieces are selected, how are the pieces presented, are the pieces commercially available? These aspects come with the territory of public existence. Due to the amount of public information that enters this public space, a collaborative and deliberate decision must be made by the client and/or a surrogate. The decision to consent must be documented in writing to the Art Therapist (AATA 2011). The public use of history diagnosis or other clinical details or even the name of the client must be given consent to use before the work enters the gallery, any written materials must be read and understood by the client and/or the surrogate. The goal of exhibition planning biseing to neither expose nor silence the client but to collaborate and set a stage appropriate for the circumstances are both the client and the body of work.

Edith Kramer’s concept of the third hand is of importance when coordinating an art therapy exhibition (Salom, 2012). The concept of third-hand discusses the methods in which art therapists make nonverbal and verbal choices to support therapeutic relationships and objectives of the sessions in the context of the exhibition. With successful collaboration with the client, exhibits can be utilized as an extension of the therapeutic relationship similar to the way that imagery is utilized within the ETC as a symbolic extension of the client themselves client. The art therapist can collaborate alongside family members and other involved parties such as surrogates, curators, and galleries to ensure the safety and dignified exhibition of the artwork (Salom, 2012). The concept of the third-hand means artwork spatial distribution narrative public lighting advertising and other elements of gallery curatorship are, utilized to make statements without the use of words (Kramer, 1986).


In conclusion the immense benefits of exhibiting artwork done in art therapy sessions isare significantly empowering to the client. The client by exhibitselfand exhibiting self-confidence may receive an opportunity to have insight into themselves as individuals, and to gain self confidence, as well as social support from family and the community. It is important to maintain the safety of the client by following ethical guidelines. You must ensure that the client is 100% responsible for the decision-making, process while making sure they understand the implications of publically displaying their artworks. As the Art Therapist you should make sure that the client is at the helm rather than the gallery or the curator, and as the client leads the exhibition process the decisions they make are documented in writing through an informed consent form. The goal of the exhibition being to empower the client to dispel biases while still respecting their individuali circumstances and feel pride in the therapeutic journey they have embarked on. Taking into account these individual circumstances, the commentary that will be allowed, as well as the aesthetic choices made through Kramer’s ‘third hand’ will all ensure a positive and beneficial exhibition for the client.

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Ethics in Exhibition of Art Therapy Projects. (2022, May 13). Retrieved from

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