A Very Brief History of the Art Therapy Field

A timeline showing a (very simplified) early history of the formation of the art therapy field in the UK and US.

Having decided on my Final Major Project, I continued exploring the narrative behind my model by researching the history of art therapy.

It was interesting to learn that art therapy began forming as a field at a very similar time in both the UK and the US. Though many different influential figures were involved in both countries, they began experimenting and establishing similar ideas on the power of creativity that is inherent to art, and how it can be developed from Freudian approaches.

The timeline above illustrates a very brief outline of this process, citing some significant characters along the way. In the UK, it was Adrian Hill and Edward Adamson who helped to establish the usage of art and creativity as a therapeutic modality. They both worked frequently with patients in hospitals and sanatoriums, though had differing influences on the field – Hill developed art as therapy, while Adamson focused more on relating it through a psychoanalytical basis. They were both highly instrumental in the setting up of the British Association of Art Therapists in 1964.

Simultaneously, Margaret Naumburg and Edith Kramer were working on setting up art therapy through their work in the United States. Both working on a Freudian basis, they veered into different pathways as Naumberg’s practise focused heavily on the unconscious, while Kramer worked predominantly with children and emphasised art itself as therapy. Over time, their ideas inspired the establishment of the American Art Therapy Association in 1969.

Art therapy as a profession, however, is not unique to the UK and US – it has been globalised to numerous continents and countries which have all taken up their own research to expand and develop the field. For instance, in Poland art therapies developed due to the work and research done by the music therapists of Wroclaw university in the mid-1980s. Nowadays, there are several postgraduate programmes that focus on creativity and the fine arts as a therapeutic modality.

Throughout its history, Edith Kramer was a key figure to the art therapy practice. She shared what she learned in Vienna to the United States and continued developing her work further there. This emphasises how art therapy functions today – with the advent of the internet and ever easier global communication, art therapy is a growing field that is increasingly considered with more weight and power to help the wellbeing of others.


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