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Beyond Spoonfuls of Sugar

Dr Nicholas Vogelpoel, Head of Arts and Wellbeing for UK disability and social care charity Sense, discusses successful arts-health intersections with regard to the 2013 National Arts and Health Framework…

The 2013 National Arts and Health Framework formally endorses aspects of the pioneering work undertaken by arts and health practitioners and researchers in the past thirty years. Many have played their part; from doctors to musicians to health economists and entrepreneurs, and the framework is testament to the collaboration and innovation of arts and health sector partnerships.

What are the challenges in the field?

  1. Arts-health intersections result from successful partnership working and require various levels of engagement with multiple stakeholders. To succeed, a key priority is to understand the different operating systems, policies and procedures across the arts and health sectors.
  2. When designing, implementing and evaluating arts-health intersections, it is vital that measurable outcomes for both art and health are specified from the outset and not simply considered as tangential. To be successful, we need to both evidence this work and meet our peers in the health and arts sectors.
  3. The greatest challenge is measuring impact; art cannot simply be described as ‘good’ for us. We must use more diverse methodological tools, with larger numbers of participants, to address an overreliance on anecdotal evidence in describing the health value of art.

Spoonfuls of sugar will no longer cut it; we need to think beyond psychological determinants of wellbeing; critique the modes and measures currently used, and make adjustments where necessary. In public health policy and practice, the concept of wellbeing is increasingly used and, for many practitioners, this can provide a useful framework for thinking about arts-health intersections.

Wellbeing is a multifaceted concept and, like inclusion before it, the rhetoric can feel ‘buzzy’.  Wellbeing takes an evidence-based, preventative approach to health promotion which individualises health identities. Evidence-based approaches to healthcare offer an opportunity to measure health and wellbeing based on individual experiences of social relationships, autonomy, happiness, loneliness, isolation and resilience, as well as coherence, cognition and general health indicators too.

What are the opportunities to pursue Arts-Health intersections in Australia? There are many strands of enquiry that would be useful, the following will be described in more detail:

1. Social Prescription

The guiding principle is that social engagement is good for your health and wellbeing. In practice, doctors and health professionals prescribe arts, social and cultural activity as part of a health plan. One of my favourite models is run by Reclink in Brisbane and is a choir called The Transformers. These types of services pose an interesting opportunity for the Arts-Health sector, because they move towards building sustainable programmes. In terms of setting up a similar service, consider the following:

  • Is there a health need in a community? Social isolation and loneliness are major health and wellbeing issues, and peer support in an appropriate setting can alleviate some symptoms.
  • Is it innovative? Quality assurance is vital to the field. No spoonfuls of sugar and no macaroni art! Whatever creative ideas you conceive, these will have to be developed as a program, even a curriculum. Consistency and rigour – these barriers are your friends!
  • Is there a cultural partner to host/help/support you? A library, museum, gallery, social enterprise, theatre etc. would all add value to the project.
  • After that, it’s all about referrals. Talk to a social worker, GP, community health visitor, referral unit, a community nurse etc. Get them on board.

2. Inter-generational Arts-Health

An increasingly isolated and ageing population as well as a lack of opportunity for early-stage career development in the creative industries presents an ideal opportunity to pursue inter-generational arts and health work. Artist residencies, applied-arts projects, storytelling, workshops etc. hosted in care homes, residential settings, hospitals and day centres can create incredible benefits for residents and for the working culture and performance of support staff and managers. For artists and arts-health practitioners, the training benefits are enormous, offering early-career artists a chance to develop project management skills, work with a range of partners and stakeholders, and develop their craft.  The possibilities for social return on investment are equally convincing and provide evidence of the work from a different perspective. Check out Creative Carers, an organization working in the UK.

3. Access, Inclusion and Participation

Art, heritage and culture isn’t always accessible or inclusive. Museums, galleries and arts organisations  can also be pretty poor at nurturing opportunities for audiences to engage and, where they do, they certainly don’t evaluate it well enough. Teams for Creative Learning, Development and Access are great pathways to arts education, but I do think a trick is missed. So many other people aren’t interacting with the arts because of access and inclusion barriers and it is our responsibility through using more innovative methods to help break these down. Just as we run analytics on audience numbers, educational outcomes, and financial return – we can evaluate health and wellbeing impacts too. Check out what Access Arts Inc. are doing in Queensland.

Finally; Art is not a panacea to our public health crises and never could be. Artists are not better at healthcare than healthcare professionals. Healthcare professionals are not better at art than artists. The intersections between these sectors are where sites of great potential for art and health exist; the value of which lie in the exploration of these converging loci. Arts-health intersections provide opportunities for us to investigate our own health identities and forge pathways to improve them, in whatever way we want to.

For more information, the recently launched National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing has a website and database capturing examples of practice and research from across the sector in the UK.

Dr Nicholas Vogelpoel is Head of Arts and Wellbeing for UK disability and social care charity Sense, for people with multi-sensory impairments. He coordinates a range of multi-arts programmes for emerging and professional artists with sensory impairments across the UK. Nicholas is an arts-health researcher and practitioner specialising in disability studies and translational health research in the social care sector and is a Visiting Lecturer at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in Applied Theatre. Previously, he worked as a Research Associate in Heritage-in-Health at University College London, and in Queensland, Australia where he worked in various research, teaching and project management roles for Queensland University of Technology, Access Arts, The Cerebral Palsy League of Queensland and Griffith University.