(image © David Shrigley)
Art helps us access and express parts of ourselves that are often unavailable to other forms of human interaction. It flies below the radar, delivering nourishment for our soul and returning with stories from the unconscious […] Making and consuming art lifts our spirits and keeps us sane.
While a large proportion of my physical and mental health is sustained through time spent running, swimming, practicing yoga and going to the gym, there is another element of my general wellbeing that is nourished through the arts. Whether it is in the hours spent wandering around an art gallery or lost in a book, at a life drawing class or choir practice, the moments when I engage with the art world bring me a sense of total peace, joy, presence and fulfilment.
Over the past year I have found myself thinking more and more about the positive role that the arts can play in our mental and physical health. To this end, last summer I set up a life drawing course at work. With funding support from our staff Wellbeing Committee, the group was established with the primary goal of taking colleagues away from their desks and into a creative space where they could engage in the moment through a practice distinct in pace and style from their everyday job. In these classes the process of drawing – being creative and present, looking, seeing and recreating shapes and forms – served as a meditative and mindful process, with the success of the class being measured as much by the feelings and reflections of the participants, as by the results of charcoal on paper.
This class is, of course, only a tiny fraction of a much wider and ever-growing movement from within the the arts and cultural heritage sector to consider the role that the sector can play within the field of health and wellbeing.
In 2014 an All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing was launched to discuss developments and policy in the field of arts and health. Two years later, the group published an almost 200 page report entitled Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing in which they assert that:
More and more people now appreciate that arts and culture can play a valuable part in helping tackle some of the most challenging social and health conditions. Active participation in the visual and performing arts, music and dance can help people facing a lonely old age, depression, or mental illness; it can maintain levels of independence and curiosity and […] it can bring great joy and so improve the quality of life for those engaged.
This paper offers a formal acknowledgement of a shift within the sector surrounding the question of who arts and heritage spaces are for and how they can serve audiences beyond the traditional academic and curatorial visitors. Within the gallery world there are signs that institutions are increasingly keen to schedule health and wellbeing initiatives into their programming. Manchester Art Gallery, for example, have a whole of section of their programme dedicated to wellness, with events to encourage visitors to engage with arts mindfully and wellbeing tours of their galleries.
These, and other initiatives hosted within both arts, care and clinical settings, are designed to be expressive, restorative, educational and therapeutic, working preventively, to enhance recovery, or to improve the quality of life for people with long-term or terminal conditions. Here the arts can play an important role in giving patients a greater sense of self; as Eva Okwonga notes in Creative Health:
Artistic self expression gives participants an identity beyond illness.
Programming around dementia is also increasing, as Nicci Gerrard highlighted in her Guardian article last year, pointing to projects including the Wellcome Foundation’s Dementia Research project, Manchester Camerata’s Music in Mind, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Music for a While and the Alzheimer’s Society’s Singing for the Brain. As Gerrard observes:
Dementia is an area where the arts can radically enhance quality of life by finding a common language and by focusing on everyday, in-the-moment creativity.
This is a sentiment shared by Lord Howarth of Newport, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group, who stated that:
The arts have a vital role to play for people with dementia. Research demonstrates that visual arts, music, dance, digital creativity and other cultural activities can help to delay the onset of dementia and diminish its severity.
Meanwhile, organisations such as the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing, the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing and London Arts in Health Forum, have been brought to the fore in recent years, at their hearts the belief that:
By supplementing medicine and care, the arts can improve the health of people who experience mental or physical health problems. Engaging in the arts can promote prevention of disease and build wellbeing.
Working in the arts and cultural heritage sector myself, with a passion for art and an interest in health and wellness, this movement fills me with so much hope and excitement. The growing possibility that through the arts – be they visual, practical, musical, theatrical or literary – we can work together to promote health, happiness and wellbeing and that we can help people through times of distress, illness and trauma, has to be a positive thing.
I want to finish with this quote from Nicci Gerrard:
Art can be medicine, for body and soul.