Blog Post

Change and collaboration: reflections on The Art of Wellbeing


Victoria Hume, director of the Culture Health & Wellbeing Alliance shares her reflections about The Art of Wellbeing

Young man reading a poem

The Culture Health & Wellbeing Alliance is a (still-fairly-new) support organisation for everyone interested in and working at the intersections of culture, creativity, health and wellbeing. We were so pleased to have the chance to partner with Creative People and Places and Super Slow Way for the Art of Wellbeing conference in Burnley during 2019’s Creativity & Wellbeing Week.

So many of our aims and experiences in the Alliance coincide with Creative People and Places; we meet at the point of shared beliefs about rebalancing inequalities of access and building a society that fosters resilience and health in its broadest sense. But the junction of health, social care and the arts and heritage is not without its tensions – and the opening of the The Art of Wellbeing situated us right at the centre of these, when Laurie Peake welcomed us on behalf of Super Slow Way and opened the day with a potent provocation that has stayed with me since. I hope she will forgive me if my paraphrasing misses the point – if it does, it’s because these and similar questions haunt me anyway, and perhaps we hear most clearly the questions that chime with our own concerns: By pushing social change through arts in marginalised communities, do we risk exacerbating the inequalities we seek to eradicate? Are we in essence asking people living in poverty to prove a social impact to justify arts funding, where for wealthier people the old-fashioned idea of art for art’s sake is enough?

Following Laurie’s warning bell, the research-led keynote given by Katey Warran from the University of Edinburgh clearly elucidated both the immediate and longer-term impacts of engaging with the arts, heritage and creative activity. Katey spoke about the impacts on wellbeing, self-efficacy, self-esteem for the Tenovus cancer choir, for example. She discussed the ways in which different elements interact through creative activities to build resilience; and how engaging with creativity, heritage and the arts can be a catalyst for behaviour change. The direction of research has moved from assessing the impacts of different types of art and is looking at an asset-based approach – how can our use of our own cultural assets support us best? Later in the day a workshop led by Lucy Oliver-Harrison from Arts & Minds in Cambridgeshire discussed the coincident marginalisation of arts in education and the current crisis in young people’s mental health – as well as Fullscope, a new consortium she is helping to build to bring the arts and young people’s mental health together.

Between Lucy and Katey, Laurie’s provocation has at least a partial answer. The arts, heritage, libraries – all our ‘cultural assets’ – are catalysts for change. The discussion across both culture and health seems to me to be about change and collaboration. In some cases this overtly responds to the divisive era in which we find ourselves; but in all cases it speaks to a longer-term desire to build community, to communicate across difference, and to level out inequalities. The Art Fund’s recent Calm and Collected report described museums as an “untapped resource” for health and wellbeing. The Museums Association is driving forward action on inclusivity and climate change. Hilary Jennings has drawn attention to museums’ capacity to act as hubs for climate activism. The Health Foundation has drawn up an infographic to describe the NHS as a “community anchor” that can “learn from others, spread good ideas and model civic responsibility”. Arts Council England’s new draft strategic framework places community at its centre more overtly than we have seen in living memory, and appears to recognise the need to move beyond the kinds of top-down provision that continue to alienate the very people they should serve. It says that “Participating in creative activities in our communities – from photography clubs and dance classes to craft circles and local choirs – reduces loneliness, supports health and wellbeing, sustains older people and helps to build and strengthen social ties”. The arts are never just for their own sake after all. Inevitably they either exclude or include, build or break. Is it not better to harness this power in the service of supporting us all?

I sat in on a workshop on “Demonstrating impact and influencing policy” that tackled ongoing anxieties about the need to prove value, and where NESTA’s Damian Hebron made an impassioned plea to regard arts and health as a social movement – and to consider the power of this collective action alongside, and perhaps beyond, the need to evidence particularities of the work. He cited the example of Extinction Rebellion, bringing about greater public and governmental acknowledgement of climate change than decades of robust, carefully presented evidence. But he would be the first to acknowledge that this is not an either/or situation. Whether or not culture, health and wellbeing is a social movement (for me the jury is still out on this) we need to harness evidence to support our position. But at the same time we need to deploy the imagination that has got us this far when we think about what evidence might be. If we are seeking to trouble the norms of health and care – and trouble the norms of culture – why stop when it comes to how we evidence our work? Creativity, curation, collection, action – this is evidence, after all. Evidence is, as many academic researchers who work in this area would doubtless agree, as much about storytelling as it is measurement.

Amongst dozens of amazing projects and programmes I sat in on a presentation from Beyond Labels (I would really encourage you to explore their website), where we were lucky enough to hear the words of two young poets from Accrington. The first was most moving, for me, because of the poet himself, his gentle, self-deprecating presence belying the inner strength that had, as he explained, been fostered through this work, enough to apply to be head boy, enough to read a poem in front of 50 strangers. The second was most moving because of the poem. The young men, their confidence, their performance, and their poems are all evidence – of health, of wellbeing, of creativity; of the need for change and of change itself:

In this world of boarded up homes
There will always be light shining through the cracks.
In this world of broken hearts
There will always be love and compassion.
In this world where you’re condemned to die,
new life will always be there.
In this world of hate there will always be acceptance.
In this world where the decisions of others have impact over us
we still have a choice.
This world will be boarded up like a condemned house
but there will always be light through the cracks.

Sam Moore (Beyond Labels)

Victoria Hume, Director, Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance

Photos: Matthew Savage