Arts Participation and the Health and Wellbeing Agenda

This is a repost of my report for Participation and Engagement in the Artsclick here to see the original post

The under belly of Northern Stage provided an unusual setting for the second seminar of 2013. It's dimly lit space, reminiscent of a night club, created an intimate and rather relaxed environment for attendees. The event was fully booked with an interesting mix of artists, arts professionals, educators and academics tightly packed in front of the stage to watch the presentations then huddle around the venue in smaller groups for the breakouts. Questions of how participatory art sits with health and wellbeing abound at the moment. How to measure outcomes, how to do it best and how to successfully get commissions are three of the big areas widely being debated around the UK so this seminar seemed a good place to catch up with some of the latest ideas.

First under the limelight was doctoral student Susan Oman with the commandingly entitled The Measurement Imperative. She began with a whistle stop history of the roller coaster relationship between arts and wellbeing agendas from Enlightenment values to Victorian citizenship, welfare state to Thatcher cuts, a New (Labour) Golden Age to our present slash and burn of all things good and state supported. The implication that politics play a key role in driving the growth (and sometimes the demise) of arts and culture as something that may (or may not) make people happier and therefore healthier was clear. In giving a flavour of some of the many attempts to evidence how art and cultural activities are important, make people happy, etc., Susan made it clear of the many pitfalls along this road towards increasingly segmented fields; particularly how this approach ignores arts and culture as part of our ‘lived experience’. The very different example of how Bhutan measures national happiness was refreshing as was Susan’s call to reframe the arts/ wellbeing agenda in a language understood by everyone.

Senior Research Fellow Mike White was next to tread the boards with What Makes for Human Flourishing? which included some great examples of err, five years of interdisciplinary research. Mike’s contended that by (almost) vanquishing ‘social ills’ we had created much more insidious injustices. Participation is, he said, essential to health; non-participation in society meanwhile makes us ill. Taking part in arts activities as good was a given here but could art treat people or help them better understand their lives? The examples of successful schools projects gave a bright sense of hope (tempered in my mind by the still to be reconciled loss of coherent state arts funding) that made a clear case for arts as a means to help children (and people of all ages) navigate their lives. Mike’s ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ were the fairly tactile yet simultaneously commanding: ‘Connect’; ‘Keep active’; ‘Notice’; ‘Keep learning’; and ‘Give’. His three areas to support the much overlooked need to sustain participatory initiatives were the rather more esoteric: ‘Resonance’; ‘Aesthetic Agency’; and ‘Communal Will’. His call for more research is undoubtedly necessary, especially if it is of the subtly nuanced kind that speaks to everyone. Perhaps though not Mike’s suggested ‘social tonic’ – ‘Resilience’...

Jan Thompson was the last of the three wellbeing espousing wordsmiths to take the stand. Recently appointed as Public Health Specialist for Northumberland County Council, Jan delivered an upbeat Participation for Wellbeing. Her call to develop (another) new model focused on the need to evidence outcomes and on the ubiquitous ‘resilience’. We were whisked through more measures than you can shake a ruler at including Mike’s ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’, Maslow’s hierarchy, a massive list of ‘inclusion criteria’, social prescribing, wellbeing scales, toolkits and a hub diagram. Jan’s enthusiasm for participation and the power of the arts to change everyone’s lives was undeniable.

There was an interlude and an Act II but I’ll leave that to your imaginations...

Suffice to say that I came as a believer and a disbeliever and left a slightly different kind of believer and disbeliever. Things in my mind shifted a little. My head hurt and my heart glowed for several days afterwards. That’s good! More of the same please...