participatory arts; public art; public health; Be Creative Be Well; local communities; five ways to well-being
For many years, participatory arts projects have been observed to make a significant contribution to the health and well-being of local communities - only for beneficial outcomes to disappear without trace when short-term project funding runs out. At the same time, there has been mounting evidence, commissioned by both arts and health bodies, to show that creativity and the arts do indeed make a significant difference to people's health and well-being and to how they feel about, and interact with, their neighbours. What can be done to build on and develop the evidence base? Particularly in times of austerity, there is also a need to draw on that evidence to develop principles and recommendations for bodies wishing to commission, and artists wishing to lead, participatory or public art initiatives that are most likely to result in sustained benefit to local people and communities.
This paper suggests ways in which arts and public health professionals can learn from each other and go on to work more effectively together and with local communities. The paper is based on a qualitative evaluation study of a wide-ranging and innovative initiative, Be Creative Be Well (part of a wider programme, Well London) that nurtured around 100 different small participatory arts projects across 20 of London's most disadvantaged areas.
Through analysis of case studies and desk research, the paper presents a summary of what exactly the artist and the creative process bring to a community context and how that can best be supported by policy makers and funders.
Who and what is art for? The question is hardly new; indeed, it has resonated throughout western civilisation from classical times on. Answers have varied enormously across the centuries, reflecting different beliefs and different values. In recent times, the popularity of London's Tate Modern gallery and the enthusiasm that has greeted public art initiatives across the UK have affirmed a widespread non-elitist appreciation of contemporary visual art.
But big questions still remain hotly debated by us as by earlier societies. Take, for example, the following comments by a local resident on the ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture when newly installed in London's Olympic Park.1
[It] is just a lump of nothing. It doesn't signify anything. What does it say about the area, the community? It's just towering over us. ... It's looking down on the little people. And we're nothing.
This view contrasted with that of Tate director, Sir Nicholas Serota, as quoted in the same feature.
The tower's creators, he says, have conjured 'a beautiful arresting sculpture' that will 'provide points of memory and incident in the landscape'.
Other local residents and artists are quoted too, taking a variety of strongly felt positions. One interviewee, the director of a series of public art projects for the Cultural Olympiad, commented:
For every large spectacular project like the ArcelorMittal Orbit there are 50 small projects engaged deeply in their communities.
This paper focuses on an initiative, Be Creative Be Well (part of a wider programme, Well London), that nurtured around 100 different small participatory arts projects across 20 of London's most disadvantaged areas. As will be seen, who and what these projects were for remained live questions throughout. What was constant across projects, however, was the determination to animate or reanimate the relationship between private and public life, with the aim of helping people achieve greater well-being. In one project, artists worked with local people living in an area called the Angel Edmonton to create metal plaques, a large sculpture for outdoor display and flower arrangements of angels. One participant in the project commented:
'As I walk past and look at the angels, I feel something within me saying that we are being watched over and protected. …