‘Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way round’ – Stephen King.

Soundcastle’s Hannah Dunster discusses the participatory arts sector and the need for evidence based research in tackling the disparity between class and health.

percussionArts practitioners working in community and social care settings often feel instinctively that something special is happening during their sessions. Week on week, they see the same people coming back, displaying increased confidence and self-esteem, enhanced communication skills and a greater sense of wellbeing and connectedness. But when it comes to articulating what exactly is taking place many artists are lost for words.

In the last few months, I have attended two challenging and exciting events investigating connections between culture, society, health and wellbeing. The first, Everyone an Artist took place at the De La Warr Pavillion, Bexhill, in October 2015 and the second more recently, Art and Wellbeing: the growing impact of arts on health at the London School of Economics in February 2016.  Both events presented exciting research showing correlations between the arts, health and wellbeing however, a prominent point of discussion was that arts organisations need a greater ability to articulate our positive impact in a rigorous, evidence based fashion.

As a squeezed budget and ageing population exert pressure, prevention is going to be key to the sustainability of our public health service and prevention in terms of health is linked to poverty.

The Marmot Review ‘Fair Society Healthy Lives’ (2010),[1] a strategic review of health inequalities in England states that:

Marmot review image‘To act on the social determinants of health [you] must get past the assumption that inequalities in health arise from inequalities in health care’

The review presents an 18 year gap in life expectancy between richest and poorest in the London borough of Westminster and states,

‘The health gap didn’t widen in the past 30 years in the US and the UK for lack of indoor toilets, but because people are not able to live lives that they value’.

Providing equal access to creative activity from the early moments of life could be vital to change this bleak picture and in order to be taken seriously by the NHS, arts organisations are going to need to get into the habit of making evidence based research an essential part of projects.

Initial UK studies have taken place and in March 2014, an evidence review by Arts Council England entitled The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society, illustrated the short term effect of arts engagement upon a range of symptoms including improved cognition, physical stability and self-esteem as well as changes in behaviour through increased social contact.[2]

Now, to convince the health sector that the arts are an economically viable option, we need to progress forward to long term studies. Scandinavia is leading the way in this field with Finland, Norway and Sweden strategically seeking evidence of the long-term relationship between arts engagement and health over the past thirty years.   Indeed, one Swedish study found, ‘those attending least [cultural events were] found to have a 60% higher risk of death’ than those attending cultural events regularly.[3]
So how can the arts sector serve as a catalyst for change, including addressing this disparity between class and health?  Soundcastle aims to make a culture of local musicking by local people, advocating that the arts are simply a part of life for anyone who wants them, regardless of class divide and economic background.  We believe that this offers a viable route to wellbeing in any part of community life. As stated by the World Health Organisation, ‘Health is created and lived by people within the settings of their everyday life where they learn, work, play and live.’[4]

research booksWe would argue that there is currently a disconnect between the institutions and the people, worlds of artists and non-artists. Culture is a sense of belonging in time and place. It is the arts that keep our culture flexible.  It is the arts that enable our culture to move forward. First and last, our cultural life is local!  By promoting community arts not merely as a form of institutional outreach but as an essential part of the cultural landscape, we may start to find a long term prevention framework in terms of health. But this requires a catalyst – people need to believe that they are worthy of participation in the arts in the first place and that is where participatory arts organisations hold a key role.  James Leadbetter, creator of visual art project ‘ Madlove: A Designer Asylum’,[5] presented the ideas of the project’s participants at the recent LSE seminar, Art and Wellbeing. When asked what good mental health feels like, one participant with mental health challenges responded:

‘Good mental health smells like the earth after the storm has broken’.

What better creative stimulus could we ask for in terms of renewing and challenging an approach to care for the mentally ill?

The arts have the capacity to empower and transform lives. Now is the time for participatory art practitioners, researchers and economists to come together and make the case for arts and health.

Do you think the arts should have to demonstrate a Social Return On Investment in order to work in health and social care settings? We would love to know your thoughts. You can leave your comments below.


Other websites/research links:

UCL Social Prescribing Comprehensive Review – examples of best practice plus guidance on evaluation:

See report: Exploring the Longitudinal Relationship Between Arts Engagement and Health:

The AHRC Cultural Value Project: Cultural value and Social Capital:

The Marmot Review: http://www.instituteofhealthequity.org/projects/fair-society-healthy-lives-the-marmot-review


[1] The Marmot Review ‘Fair Society Healthy Lives’ (2010) http://www.instituteofhealthequity.org/projects/fair-society-healthy-lives-the-marmot-review

[2] Arts Council England, The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society: An Evidence Review (London: Arts Council England, 2014), p. 26.

[3] Lars Olov Bygren, Boinkum Benson Konlaan and Sven-Erik Johansson, ‘Attendance at Cultural Events, Reading Books or Periodicals, and Making Music or Singing in a Choir
as Determinants for Survival: Swedish Interview Survey of Living Conditions’, British
Medical Journal,
313, 21–28 December 1996, pp. 1577–80.

[4] http://www.who.int/healthpromotion/conferences/previous/ottawa/en/index1.html

[5] http://madlove.org.uk/