Could arts and culture hold the key to the digital divide?

The rapid shift to digital content creation, distribution, audience engagement and participation since the start of the pandemic has enabled the continued experience of arts and culture, despite cultural institutions having to shut their doors. But a significant proportion of the population still face barriers to digital engagement – 7 million people have no internet access at home, 9 million people struggle to use the internet independently and 17 million people only use the internet for limited purposes.

Previous research has shown that engagement with cultural institutions such as museums and galleries, both on-and off-line, “remains deeply unequal”. Perhaps more worrying was the finding that “the gaps between the haves and the have nots are even wider online than in the case of physical visits.”

During a recent webinar by the Digital Culture Network, presented in partnership with Google Arts & Culture and their Connected to Culture playbook, the scale of the digital divide was highlighted, as was the important role arts and culture can play in addressing it.

The discussion focused on three areas:

  • Digital inequalities, barriers and exclusion
  • Knowing your audience
  • Projects that have successfully increased inclusivity

Digital divide

Kicking off the discussion on the digital divide, Jane Mackey, Senior Research & Evaluation Manager at the Good Things Foundation highlighted three key areas when we think about the digital divide:

  • digital access (7million people in the UK are excluded on this basis)
  • digital skills (11.7million people in the UK don’t have digital skills needed to engage online)
  • motivation and confidence (people might have access and some skills but lack the motivation or confidence to use it)

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows that a perceived lack of need, followed by a lack of digital skills are the main reasons given for not having household internet access.  The focus has mainly been on engaging and upskilling those who already have access to digital technology. But, as the discussion highlighted, the excluded 20% would be likely to benefit more from targeted action.

Jane noted that the digital divide is not static, but is more of a spectrum that people can move along throughout their lives. Based on its current research, the Good Things Foundation recommends that the arts and culture sector commits to be digitally inclusive by default. This will help to overcome barriers to digital by engaging directly with the digitally excluded and partnering with other organisations.

Zak Mensah, Co-CEO at the Birmingham Museums Trust, similarly highlighted barriers to digital, such as the infrastructural barriers depending on people’s location. Some rural areas, for example, do not have the digital infrastructure needed for access. Even in cities, which tend to have faster broadband, much of it is focused on the centre and businesses rather than individual households.

Zak also highlighted the importance of motivation, and giving people a reason to use technology.

Role of arts and culture

While some think the key is to get everyone to have the internet at home, Zak suggested that arts and cultural organisations can help people’s access by using their physical spaces better and also by taking the technology to the excluded.

Libraries have been successful over a number of years in providing space for people to access technology with free internet and support in using it. Similarly, arts and cultural organisations are in a position to do the same through their digital tools.

One suggestion was not switching off the Wi-Fi at close of business; another was potentially reducing restrictions on what people can access using their Wi-Fi (while obviously maintaining some control) so people can use it for wider purposes.

One project Birmingham Museums managed recently involved taking digital kit out to care homes for digital arts sessions. This was not only great for wellbeing; it also showed how digital technologies can be adapted to connect with people within communities. As Zac said “ultimately we have to go out more, we can’t always get people to come to you.”

Zak also explained that collaboration is key – sharing resources, ideas and skills – to reach as many people as possible.

Inclusive practice

Jenny Williams, Project Director at Revoluton Arts in Luton, also highlighted the importance of new partnerships.

She noted that when lockdown first started the staff wanted to keep engaging, so moved online with the help of Zoom. Because they didn’t really know about how it worked Revoluton called upon people within the community to help teach others.

They now have a suite of materials online that can help artists and others.

Revoluton has also worked with Marsh Farm Outreach who ran lounge sessions every night with live music, working with local artists and reaching huge audiences. One session titled The Creative History of Marsh Farm was about reminiscence, memory, sharing stories of place, and engaged 6000 people. While acknowledging that such online communication is great for international reach, Jenny noted that it can also make a big difference locally.

They have also used digital tech to create safe spaces online to attract members of the community that might not have otherwise engaged. One of their residency programmes, Touch Commission, was co-commissioned with Wellcome Collection which explored the theme of touch through arts and creativity. The project was centred on Bury Park, a predominantly Asian community in Luton. The dialogue and understanding that was shown helped to engage with those most excluded.

Another project highlighted by Jane was the Power Up initiative, a collaboration between the Good Things Foundation and JP Morgan Chase Foundation, which aims to drive economic inclusion through digital in communities.

Other partnerships showcasing inclusive practice include:

  • Engaging older audiences – Birmingham Museums Trust & Arts Council Collection partnership programme aimed at reaching the over 75s in care homes.
  • Dance and Time with the Museum – Presented in a partnership between University of Cambridge Museums and local sheltered housing and assisted living services; this blog outlines how the project was safely moved online.
  • Bussy – Prompted by Revoluton’s experiences of creating safe spaces for everyone online; this is an example of a creative organisation doing the same.

Way forward

There were a number of key takeaways from the discussion for arts and culture organisations. These include:

  • it’s about knowing your audience, knowing what their barriers to access are and planning an approach to these from the start;
  • empathy and understanding that happens as a result can be important; and
  • it’s about understanding the resources you have and how they can be used, particularly through partnerships.

There’s no quick fix for breaking down the barriers to digital engagement: as Zak eloquently put it, “it’s a marathon not a sprint”. But, as the many practices highlighted during this webinar demonstrate, the arts and culture sector has the tools to make a difference on the digital divide.


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From rainbows to Banksy – have lockdowns created a new appreciation for the value of the arts?

Cultural and creative sectors are among the worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Recent analysis suggests that jobs at risk in the sector range from 0.8 to 5.5% of employment across OECD regions. In the UK, the arts, entertainment and recreation sector saw the second largest economic decline of all sectors of the economy during the pandemic.

While the negative impact of crises is justifiably focused on, there are often positive opportunities to arise from such shocks such as widespread collaboration and innovative behaviours to find solutions. Indeed, the current pandemic is no different. Amidst the myriad of reports of the dire economic impact emerges a much more colourful picture of a resurgence in arts and creativity across not only the country but the world.

Rising creativity

From the abundance of rainbows displayed in windows across the UK to singers and musicians entertaining their neighbours from their balconies in Italy and elsewhere, the global pandemic has led to many turning to the arts and creative activities in a bid to help each other’s wellbeing and to thank those on the frontline for their heroic efforts to protect us all.

Many young people found new ways to express themselves through creativity during lockdown, whether drawing or making things, creating music or videos to share on social media. Examples of what young people in England have been creating are presented in Arts Council England’s project The Way I See It .

All sorts of artists from across the globe have been sharing their coronavirus-inspired artwork via social media.

The infamous street artist Banksy has also been joining in, creating a variety of new work from rats encouraging people to wear face masks on the London Underground to a piece paying tribute to NHS workers in Southampton General Hospital.

And the industry itself has had to get creative finding new ways to reach people. Many cultural and creative organisations have moved to delivering digital content to keep audiences engaged, which has opened the door for many future innovations. Organisations and individuals have also been doing a variety of work to reach those most in need such as projects creating new programmes or adapting existing work to reach people who are shielding or vulnerable in their homes, overwhelmingly addressing loneliness and isolation. One participant described their experience:

“I found the process of drawing and painting both cathartic and healing at the most difficult time of my life.”

Economic and social value

While there has generally been a need to make the case for the value of arts and creative activity, whether in education or business, perhaps the impact of lockdowns has afforded the opportunity for everyone to recognise their value both at times of crisis and as part of recovery.

The sector is already an economic driver and source of innovation. In 2019, the economic output of arts and culture was equivalent to 0.5% of the whole UK economy. And despite the immediate economic impact of the pandemic, there is hope that the sector will recover quickly, albeit with significant government support. Recent research from the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) predicts that the sector’s Gross Value Added (GVA) will return to its pre-lockdown level of £13.5bn by 2022 with the help of the Culture Recovery Fund, a full year earlier than was anticipated without government intervention. The research also shows the sector is set to be worth £15.2 billion to the economy by 2025.   

As well as contributing to the economic recovery, the sector can also play a crucial role in the social recovery as indicated by the many examples highlighted above.

As non-educators, many home-schooling parents have moved towards cultural and creative enrichment for their children. It has been well-documented that arts and creative activities can help improve mental health and wellbeing and at a time when there are grave concerns about young people’s mental health, surely this can only be a good thing.

As previous pandemics and disasters have consistently shown, a major focus of recovery needs to be on mental health; something that the arts and creative industries can clearly help with.

Final thoughts

At time when we might all feel like social distancing from ourselves, the arts and creative activities can provide an escape for everyone. The value of arts and culture, both economically and socially, cannot be underestimated. Perhaps the most positive outcome of the current pandemic for these sectors, will be the newfound appreciation of them from all walks of life which will hopefully translate into decision-makers thinking twice before laying the brunt of budget cuts at their door.


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The year of living differently: reviewing The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2020

2020 has been a year like no other. A microscopic virus – 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair – has dominated, disrupted and redefined the way we live and work.

Although the pandemic is primarily a public health emergency, its effects have been felt in all areas of public and social policy, from economic development and employment to transport and the environment. Throughout this year, our blog has reflected on the impacts of the coronavirus and the restrictions introduced to prevent its spread.

The COVID-19 knock-on

While the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the news headlines, it has also obscured the knock-on effects on the NHS. In October, we reported on the impacts of delays to preventative healthcare measures, such as screening and routine medical care in the form of pre-planned operations for long-term chronic and non-urgent conditions.

As the blog post noted, the impacts have been wide-ranging, including not only delays in care for case of physical ill health, but also for those seeking treatment for mental health conditions:

“Research suggests that incidence of mental illness during the coronavirus pandemic increased. However, the numbers of people accessing services and being referred for treatment have not increased proportionate to this.”

The ‘hidden epidemic’

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violence had become known as a ‘hidden epidemic’ in the UK. In September, our blog highlighted the unintended consequences of quarantine for domestic abuse victims.

After the UK entered lockdown in March, calls and online enquiries to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse line increased by 25%. Three-quarters of victims told a BBC investigation that lockdown had made it harder for them to escape their abusers and in many cases had intensified the abuse they received.

Despite additional government funding, the local authorities and charities which support victims of domestic violence have been struggling with the financial fallout from the pandemic. Even so,  important partnerships have been formed between local government, educational institutions and third sector bodies to provide safe spaces for women and their children fleeing violence. Among these was an initiative at the University of Cambridge:

St Catherine’s College formed a partnership with Cambridge Women’s Aid to provide over 1000 nights of secure supported accommodation during the lockdown period.

‘Same storm, different boats’

As the recent Marmot review has stressed, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and deepened many of the deep-rooted inequalities in our society, including gender, ethnicity and income.  It has also shone a light on more recent inequalities, such as the growth of precarious employment among sections of the population.

In July, we looked at the uneven economic impact of the pandemic, focusing on the heavy price being paid by young people, women, disabled people and Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

Women often work in the frontline of care services and have had to juggle childcare during lockdown. BAME communities are over-represented in key-worker jobs, and so were particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.

And although there has been much talk about ‘building back better’, our blog post drew attention to the observations of Dr Sally Witcher, CEO of Inclusion Scotland during a Poverty Alliance webinar:

“She asks whether indeed we should want to build back, when the old normal didn’t work for a large proportion of people, particularly those with disabilities. Dr Witcher also questions ‘who’ is doing the building, and whether the people designing this new future will have the knowledge and lived experience of what really needs to change.”

The impacts of a pandemic

Many other aspects of the impact of COVID-19 have been covered in our blog:

  • How housing providers have embraced the fluidity of an emergency situation, including tackling homelessness, engaging effectively with tenants and addressing mental ill health.
  • Digital healthcare solutions for those with coronavirus and for the continuity of care and day-to-day running of the NHS.
  • Creating and managing a COVID-secure workplace.
  • How COVID-19 is changing public transport, including an acceleration towards contactless payment and mobile ticketing.
  • The additional challenges of the pandemic facing autistic children and young people.
  • The impact of the coronavirus restrictions on the arts.
  • The role of green new deals in tackling climate change and economic inequality as part of the post-Covid recovery.

Beyond the virus

Although the pandemic has been at the forefront of all our minds this year, The Knowledge Exchange blog has also taken the time to focus on other important issues in public and social policy:

We’ve also taken advantage of the ‘new normal’ experience of remote working to join a number of webinars, and to report back on the observations and ideas emerging from them. Most recently, our blogs have focused on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, which included contributions on how the planning system can help address climate change.

Final thoughts

The health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic are likely to be long-lasting – restrictions on travel, work and socialising will continue into the spring, and insolvencies and unemployment numbers are likely to rise. And the continuing uncertainty over the UK’s new trading relationship with the European Union will generate additional challenges.   

But, as a frequently difficult, often challenging and sometimes distressing year draws to a close, there is cause for optimism about 2021. Vaccines to prevent the spread of the virus have been developed with lightning speed. Across the UK people are already being vaccinated, with greater numbers set to receive the jab in the coming months.

Here at The Knowledge Exchange, we’ll continue to highlight the key issues facing public and social policy and practice as we move towards the post-Covid era.

Season’s greetings

It’s with even greater meaning than ever before that we wish all our readers a happy Christmas, and a healthy, prosperous and happy new year.

Best wishes from everyone at The Knowledge Exchange: Morwen, Christine, Heather, Donna, Rebecca, Scott, Hannah and James.


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Can the arts recover from coronavirus? (part 2)

The first part of this blog series looked at the impact the coronavirus has had on the arts sector so far, and at the help being offered to alleviate it.

In social isolation, many people turn to art for entertainment and comfort and as a means for connecting with others, and the importance of the arts for wellbeing becomes increasingly apparent. Despite the huge strain the sector is under, its organisations and professionals are finding innovative ways of overcoming the challenges they face, to continue creating and engaging with the public.

How is the sector responding?

With venues closed and in-person events cancelled, the arts have moved online, and the sector is essentially undergoing an imposed digital shift.

Galleries and museums across the world have digitised and moved online, allowing the public to explore their collections virtually, and often for free. Several galleries have been experimenting with virtual reality platforms, allowing them to arrange and display their collections as they would onsite. The Getty Museum in California has even made its collections available via “Animal Crossing”, allowing gamers to view and display artworks from the Getty on their own virtual islands.

Theatres and performing arts companies have responded to the crisis by making performances available for free via streaming platforms. London’s Royal Opera House have been streaming free opera and ballet performances, Shakespeare’s Globe theatre has made a large collection of its recorded stage productions available for free, the English National Ballet have been offering remote ballet lessons, and the National Theatre have made a collection of its productions available through YouTube.

Artists, like many people, are working from home. Well-known artists including Anthony Gormley, Grayson Perry, David Hockney and Tracey Emin have been sharing their work during lockdown using social media.

Musicians have also been using social media and streaming platforms to share performances and collaborate with one another. New music has been created in response to the pandemic, and many artists have participated in live stream events to raise money for music venues which are at risk because of the crisis. Major global broadcast events such as ‘Together at Home’ have included performances from well-known artists like Lady Gaga and Elton John, to raise funds for frontline workers and the World Health Organisation.

By going digital, the arts sector is successfully keeping the public engaged, but concerns have been raised about the sustainability of this new model where most content is being offered for free, and there is uncertainty about how the public will choose to consume arts and culture in a post-coronavirus world.

What is needed going forward?

Despite the funding efforts and the hard work of the arts sector, as social distancing continues, concerns are growing about how the sector will withstand the financial pressures as the crisis moves into its next phase. As the emergency funds offered by Arts Council England (ACE) are quickly running out, their CEO Darren Henley has emphasised that ACE simply do not have “the resources needed to secure the income of individuals or the future of shuttered organisations through an extended lockdown, nor the ability to support the costs of reopening”. He argues that finding a solution going forward will require close engagement between government and arts organisations.

A recent letter, written by the Creative Industries Federation (CEF) and signed by 400 of the UK’s leading artists, has warned that the UK is in serious danger of becoming a “cultural wasteland” despite the funding that has been offered so far, and called for urgent funding from the government to support creative industries.

The Culture 2030 Goal Campaign have argued that the arts and culture sectors are “too often compromised in budget allocations”, and have called on governments to take immediate action to protect the sector which will play a fundamental role in helping communities to recover from the crisis. This argument has been echoed by United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), who have also emphasised the vital role of arts and culture in making sense of the world post-crisis.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of London’s Serpentine gallery, has argued that a multimillion-pound public arts fund is needed, similar to the programmes offered by Franklin D Roosevelt to support the arts during the Great Depression.

Final thoughts

The arts are finding ways to adapt, create, and innovate during the coronavirus crisis, despite serious financial strain. Arts professionals recognise that the sector has recovered from crises before and will find a way of doing so again. It has also been argued that the crisis has given the sector a chance to slow down, reset, and develop a more sustainable way of working together in the future. ACE have pointed out that, while the hardest part may be yet to come, they now have “an emerging sense of what the months ahead may look like and a chance to prepare”. Like most other sectors and areas of society, the arts will move into its own “new normal”, but just what that will look like remains to be seen.

Part one of this blog post was published on Monday 11 May.

Further posts on our blog concerning the arts and culture include:

Can the arts recover from coronavirus? (part 1)

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No part of society or the economy has been untouched by the coronavirus outbreak, but as the situation develops globally, it has emerged that the arts, culture, and heritage sectors may be among the hardest hit. Organisations and individuals are working hard to adapt and deliver art in more creative ways than ever, but there is real concern about the lasting effects the pandemic could have on the cultural and creative industries, and the extent to which they will manage to recover.

The impact of coronavirus on the arts, culture and heritage sectors

Back in March, the UK government’s implementation of lockdown and strict social distancing measures led to the sudden and indefinite closure of cultural spaces such as theatres, museums, galleries and cinemas, and the cancellation or postponement of pretty much all events, performances, and festivals across the country. This suspended the usual operations of most cultural institutions, leading to uncertainty and potentially devastating financial losses for those working in the sector, particularly freelancers.

Many involved in the creative industries have expressed concern about financial sustainability, and about how a crisis like this may deepen the sector’s existing inequalities. In the UK, the creative industries employ around two million people, and approximately a third of these are freelancers – the group likely to be the hardest hit by the cancellation of events and projects.

The cancellation of summer festivals and gigs has particularly affected freelance musicians, comedians and performers who often rely on the festival circuit for a substantial proportion of their income.

On top of the immediate financial concerns, artists have expressed worries about the effect of the coronavirus on their visibility, as long-planned projects grind to a halt.

A recent report published by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland estimated that the average loss of earnings for individuals in Northern Ireland’s arts sector was £3,756 between March and May 2020, and the total income loss for organisations was approximately £3.97 million during the same period. Arts Council England have been conducting similar research to gauge the impact of the crisis on the arts sector in England, and are expected to publish their findings soon.

A series of recent webinars delivered by OECD addressed the impact of the coronavirus crisis on museums, and the wider cultural and creative sectors. Museums are at immediate risk due to the dramatic reduction in revenue and charitable donations, and the livelihoods of their staff and freelance professionals are in jeopardy as a result. The loss of income across the wider arts sector has the potential to wipe out a significant proportion of its creative framework. In the longer term, museum ecosystems may be seriously damaged by the loss of smaller creative companies and professionals, on whom museums rely for creative outputs. OECD also warned that the sudden withdrawal of museums from local development projects could have a lasting negative impact on their local communities.

Similar concerns are raised in the Arts Council of Northern Ireland report, which emphasises that the suspension of public classes, workshops, community outreach initiatives and work within schools, usually provided by arts organisations, is likely to have a profound impact on Northern Ireland’s local communities and place vulnerable people at risk.

What is being done to help?

Across the UK, emergency funding programmes have been launched to support organisations and individuals at risk.

Arts Council England has offered £160 million of emergency funding (almost all of its reserves), to protect England’s arts, museums and libraries. The funding package aims to support individual creative practitioners, as well as organisations at risk. As part of this programme, they are continuing to fund their existing National Portfolio Organisations, even where agreed projects cannot go ahead.

Arts Council Wales has allocated an initial £7 million to an urgent response fund, with the hope that  funding will increase through collaboration with other trusts, foundations, and charities who are able to contribute. Arts Council for Northern Ireland has combined £500,000 of their own funds with £1 million from the Department of Communities to create an emergency fund for artists and creative organisations.

Creative Scotland have launched three new emergency funding programmes, as well as guaranteeing that all previously committed funding awards will be honoured regardless of event cancellation. They have also encouraged recipients of their funding to honour their pre-existing agreements with artists and freelance professionals.

Businesses and employees in the sector are receiving support from the government’s furlough scheme, and freelancers can apply for government grants as part of the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme.

A variety of independent funding schemes have also been set up by charities and non-profit organisations across the UK to support organisations and individuals.

What next?

The arts sector is in serious danger as a result of the coronavirus crisis. The assistance on offer has the potential to help individuals and organisations to stay afloat for the time being, but as lockdown persists and social distancing measures seem set to continue for the foreseeable future, there are already concerns that the funding on offer at this stage is not going to be enough. The second part of this blog series will consider how the arts sector is responding to the crisis, and what is needed to help its recovery going forward.


Part two of this blog post will appear on Wednesday 13 May.

Further posts on our blog concerning the arts and culture include:

How to make people with learning disabilities feel more included in society

Image: Accessible music technology OpenUp Music/Youth Music Network

This guest blog was written by Val Williams, Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Bristol.

People with learning disabilities can often find themselves feeling excluded when it comes to making decisions about their lives. This can range from everything, from shopping to making music or even bringing up a baby. Sometimes this exclusion can be exacerbated by the kind of support that they receive from social services – but it can also be countered by sensitive personal assistance or support.

In a recent research project, which brought together disabled and non-disabled researchers, we looked at ways to improve this – and how to include people with learning disabilities in decisions.

Part of the project found that by taking active roles in the arts, people with learning disabilities can lead the way towards meaningful inclusion. Beth Richards, an actress with learning disabilities, led part of the research about people with learning disabilities on TV. She found that actors with learning disabilities are often limited to roles which depict the “disability”, the tragic or dependent life of the character, or their effect on others around them. A successful actor with learning disabilities, for instance, told her:

“I wish TV makers would think more creatively and give people with learning disabilities any role – romantic, fantasy, comedy, shop assistants, office workers. I’d like to play James Bond, Romeo, Dobby in Harry Potter or a detective or many other roles.”

The Queen’s Birthday Honours in June 2018 include an MBE to the actress with Downs Syndrome, Sarah Gordy, for her “services to the arts and people with disabilities”. As Gordy said upon receiving the award, “diversity is an opportunity, not a problem”. She is good proof of that.

But there is a lack of accessible information. There is no shortage of talented actors and drama companies supporting people with learning disabilities, but the TV industry and its workings are still shrouded in jargon. Processes such as commissioning, auditioning and scriptwriting tend to exclude those who do not have someone to help them navigate all this.

In another part of the research, my colleague Marina Gall looked in detail at how music making can be transformed by the Open Orchestras approach in which young people with multiple and complex needs are enabled to learn musical skills, play in ensembles and become music makers. A new technological instrument – the Clarion – can be played on computers and iPads, using one’s hand, a small sensor on any part of the body, or via a person’s gaze. It can be adapted to suit most students’ physical needs.

One of the co-founders of Open Orchestras, Doug Bott, told our research team, that the approach is “personalised around the individual young person”. But at the same time, it’s trying to ensure that music is an important part of the curriculum for all young people, and has been immensely successful in changing perceptions of people with learning disabilities. This is not therapy, it’s a route to making music and to performance.

Making decisions

People with learning disabilities also face inequalities and problems in the NHS, as well as in a cash-strapped social care system. For instance, since the Mental Capacity Act 2005 came into force, support staff are legally required to support people with learning disabilities to develop their own capacity to make a decision. What we saw in our data was that people with learning disabilities can be proactive in seeking out this support – and we recorded conversations with personal assistants where people wanted to talk about decisions relating to safety, health or simply about future cooking plans. The skills that a personal assistant needs to have are to listen, look out and be responsive to the people they are supporting.

One of the key messages from our project is that health and social care practices sometimes get stuck. We used the word “institutionalised” for those times when professionals stick to a rigid and inflexible way of doing things, leaving the disabled person without the power to have a voice.

These difficult moments were also highlighted by actors with learning disabilities who helped to interpret our data. Our research benefited from a collaboration with the Misfits Theatre Company in Bristol, showing how sensitive interactions between people with learning disabilities and their personal assistants were often the trigger for good decisions, and giving those with disabilities a feeling of control over their own lives.

But quite small comments can create problems, spoiling an empowering relationship. The theatre company made a brilliant video called A Good Match about their own perspectives and experience of managing relationships with a personal assistant. One of the Misfits actors said: “It’s my house … and I don’t want my (personal assistant) telling me what I can and cannot do.”

 

After looking at a range of activities that can exclude or include people with learning disabilities, we concluded that inclusion happens when three things come together. Sometimes people with learning disabilities are included because of changes to technology, as in the Open Orchestras approach. At other times, they are included better because of new ways of doing something, or through new skills that they may learn – as actors, or as TV performers.

The ConversationBut at the heart of all this is a new belief in the equal value of people with learning disabilities. This is why we recommend that social care services need to focus less on what people cannot do, but instead promote a genuine belief in what people with learning disabilities can do – with the right support.


Val Williams is Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Bristol.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Writing and recovery: creative writing as a response to mental ill health

 

“You don’t put yourself into what you write, you find yourself there.”
Alan Bennett

Mental illness, for so long regarded as secondary to physical health, is now being taken more seriously. Media stories about loneliness, anxiety and depression have highlighted increasing concerns about mental ill health, and the issue has also been rising up the political agenda.

In 2017, a survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that only a small minority of people (13%) reported living with high levels of good mental health, and nearly two-thirds of people said that they had experienced a mental health problem.

Prescribed medication is one response to mental health problems, and it’s been reported that the NHS is prescribing record numbers of antidepressants.  But while psychiatric drugs can be of real value to patients, especially those whose condition is very severe, the mental health charity Mind has suggested that alternatives, such as physical exercise, talking therapies and arts therapies, are often more beneficial.

Last month, a conference at the University of Glasgow explored ways in which creative writing is being used to respond to mental ill health, and discussed what makes writing interventions helpful for coping and recovery.

Voices of experience: coping and recovery through writing

“Making and consuming art lifts our spirits and keeps us sane”.
Grayson Perry

Several speakers at the Glasgow conference testified to the effectiveness of writing in dealing with mental ill health and in finding a way to recovery.

In 2012, James Withey experienced a set of circumstances which brought him close to taking his own life. In the darkness of his depression, James felt that he might never recover. But after spending time at Maytree, the UK’s first “sanctuary for the suicidal”, he found that writing about what he was going through offered an antidote to the lies being spun by his depression.

He started a blog, and when he posted a letter to himself, beginning “Dear You.” James found that writing the letter gave him space to express his feelings and to listen to himself.

Before long, readers of James’s blog were responding with their own “Dear You” letters. The word spread that the letters offered a different perspective on recovery, and in some instances, had prevented suicide.

Today, The Recovery Letters project is still going strong, with a website, one published book and another in the pipeline. James is realistic about the project:

The letters are not a cure for a chronic illness, but they do provide support in helping sufferers of depression accept where they are.”

Policy positions: the view from Wales

“If poetry and the arts do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness.”
Seamus Heaney

Another speaker at the conference was Frances Williams, a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University, where she is studying arts and health. In her presentation, Frances explored some of the policy frameworks and public discourse surrounding the field of therapeutic writing in Wales.

She highlighted a recent report, Creative Health, The Arts, Health and Well-being, which  makes a case for the healing power of the arts in many different healthcare and community contexts.  In this report, a creative writing tutor explained some of the ways in which writing can help people experiencing bereavement, including keeping a journal, writing unsent letters, describing personal belongings and resolving unfinished conversations:

“Writing can be a valuable means of self-help, with the page as a listening friend, available any time of the day or night, hearing whatever the writer wants to say. The results of this can be powerful, and include people being able to return to work and adjust more effectively after their loss, acquiring skills for their own self-care which will serve them through the rest of their life.”

Frances also noted that the battle of priorities between impact and value-for-money has driven advocates of arts therapy programmes to defend them in terms of cost effectiveness and social value.

A mapping project by the Arts Council of Wales has taken this to heart, producing in 2018 an audit of the principal arts and health activities currently taking place in Wales.

Writing to the rescue

“By writing, I rescue myself”
William Carlos Williams

The Glasgow University conference underlined the health-giving properties of creative activities and the potential for creative writing to support people suffering with mental ill health. There was no pretence that writing offers a quick-fix solution. As James Withey noted, “…writing is just one element in a toolkit of responses to mental ill health.”

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing fully supports this concept, and has recommended that policymakers recognise its importance:

“…the arts can make an invaluable contribution to a healthy and health-creating society. They offer a potential resource that should be embraced in health and social care systems which are under great pressure and in need of fresh thinking and cost-effective methods. Policy should work towards creative activity being part of all our lives.”


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Child neglect, wellbeing and resilience – adopting an art’s based approach (Seminar highlights)

upset boy against a wall

By Rebecca Jackson

‘Neglect is a complex issue but art can help, so let it’. That was one of the key messages to come out of a seminar session held at Strathclyde University last week.

The seminar is one of a series of four, looking at how arts-based techniques can be used in research and practice when interacting with neglected children. The session also considered how the arts can be used as a tool to promote resilience among vulnerable and neglected children by building self esteem, a sense of self worth, providing an outlet for emotion and supporting self efficacy.

The interactive seminar drew on a range of topics and sources. Academics from the Universities of Stirling and Dundee led the discussions and delegates included practitioners from psychology, social work, education and social research.

Lack of value placed on the arts

Some general themes to emerge from discussions included:

  • The lack of value placed on the arts as a form of assessment and interaction with children in a professional setting.
  • The over-emphasis on outcomes and funding which means that more ‘fun’ resources and methods are overlooked for more cost or time efficient ones, rather than the ones which work best for each individual child.
  • Children quite easily and quite quickly, between the ages of 10-14 go from being ‘neglected, vulnerable children’ in the eyes of society to ‘problem or troublesome children’.
  • The need to clarify what is meant by successful outcomes and the sense that outcomes have to be quantifiable, with one participant commenting:

    “I am required to produce reports and look for evidence in facts and figures, when in reality, getting a child who has suffered neglect to feel self-worth, or to say they have had fun could and should be a major indicator of the success of a scheme. That is difficult to evidence to other people who don’t know that child.”

Discussions from the day were captured by a graphic designer (Rebecca Jackson, 2015)

Discussions from the day were captured by a graphic designer (Rebecca Jackson, 2015)

Benefits of arts-based interventions

Some of the more art-specific observations from those who use it in their practice highlighted:

  • That removing children from feeling as though they are the centre of attention can be helpful in engaging them – baking, building things from Lego and drawing or colouring can help with this:

    “One-to-one interviews can be very intimidating for children, often they can cause them to close up more as they feel there is pressure and judgement from adults. Blending art activities with standard practice creates a better environment for a child and addresses some of that power imbalance which they are often acutely aware of.”

  • Distancing the child from their story, through analogies, creative writing or storytelling can also help them to open up:

    “I will quite often say, if you had a friend who…. or if there was a character in a story who…. how do you think they would feel? what would you tell them to do? who could they talk to about it? Just giving that little bit of hypothetical distance can really help a child to open up. The story creates an extra level of safety for them”

  • Resources are a big barrier:

    “I work in an office – that’s where I hold my meetings – where can I find a space to bake a cake with a child?”

  • Making full use of the community and its resources – and having the guts to ask for something if you want it:

    “You will be surprised and amazed by people’s generosity if you just ask”

  • Relationships will always be key, and arts-based practice can help encourage and shorten the time it takes for practitioners to build these relationships.

    “Quite often it is one key person, who engages with that child, who the child trusts and feels safe and comfortable around, that can make the biggest difference to that child’s progress”

Future questions

This seminar session was designed as a way to introduce arts based practices in cases of child neglect and vulnerable children and to identify some of the key strategic barriers to its use in practice in Scotland (and the UK more widely). In many ways it raised more questions than it answered.

The subsequent sessions, to be held in early 2016 at the University of Strathclyde and the University of Stirling, will use these discussions to address how academics, practitioners and policy-makers can create a strong collective voice to encourage training in, and promotion of, arts-based practice in Scotland.


Scottish Universities Insight Institute seminar series:Child neglect, wellbeing and resilience: adopting an arts-based approach

Seminar 1: Research methodologies and arts based approaches to resilience and neglect (26th October 2015)

Who was speaking?

  • Professor Brigid Daniel, School of Applied Social Studies, University of Stirling
  • Cheryl Burgess, Research Fellow, University of Stirling
  • Jane Scott, Business Development, WithScotland
  • Dr Susan Elsley, Independent Researcher and associate of CRFR at University of Edinburgh
  • Professor Divya Jindal-Snape, Education, Inclusion and Life Transitions, University of Dundee

Eco-Cultures: blending arts and the environment

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, with the "Concrete Antenna"

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, with the “Concrete Antenna” Image: John Lord via Creative Commons

By James Carson

To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it.
Wendell Berry

The worlds of place and imagination came together last weekend at EcoCultures, Glasgow’s festival of environmental research, policy and practice. With over 40 presentations covering topics as diverse as land reform, poetry, sculpture and urban ecology, the festival provided numerous opportunities to learn how artists, scientists and community activists are responding in very different ways to their environments.

Sharing a sense of place

For Rebecca Crowther, exploring shared experiences of nature is important for understanding notions of belonging. Rebecca’s PhD thesis is based on collecting and truthfully representing stories, watching people interact with the natural world, and collaboratively documenting experiences using journals and photographs. As Rebecca observed: “The stories people tell about places reveal which places matter to them, and why.”

Community gardens

Blair Cunningham’s presentation also highlighted the value of places for collective sharing. As part of a larger body of research looking at Glasgow’s growing network of community gardens, Blair was commissioned to create an artist book to explore some of the issues raised by the research, such as community empowerment and social inclusion.

ArtistBook

Blair Cunningham’s Artist Book. Image produced by permission of Aye-Aye Books

He described the process of identifying these community gardens, some of which are hidden from view, but still very-well used by their communities. As well as providing spaces for growing plants, fruit and vegetables, community gardens are also meeting places, with many offering learning opportunities, such as cookery classes. However, they are also engaged in a battle to survive. While some are dependent on grant funding, others rely on the good will of landowners, which may be withdrawn if the land can be sold for property development. Even so, the numbers of community gardens in Glasgow continue to grow.

Environmental policy

Growth of a different kind was under discussion at the environmental policy session.  Luke Devlin, from the Centre for Human Ecology, noted that the consumerist way of life had emerged as a significant measure of growth, and that very little policy was challenging that narrative. Growth, at any cost, he argued, means people and natural resources have become expendable. With 2015 likely to be the hottest on record for the planet, Luke held out little optimism for the outcome of the UN climate change talks next month in Paris.

However, Patrick Harvie MSP, from the Scottish Green Party offered some signs of hope. When the Green Party was established in 1973, he observed, recycling was regarded as something of an oddball activity. But now, he said, recycling is seen as imperative for households, companies and local authorities. Every political party in the Scottish Parliament supports climate change targets, and MSPs are held to account for their environmental policies. Another measure of progress, he suggested, was the recent speech given by Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, warning bankers and insurers on the risks of climate change, something unthinkable a decade ago.

All of this, Patrick argued, was still not enough, but politicians had to remind people that further progress was still possible:  “We cannot engage with the public on the basis that we’re all doomed.”

The artist’s response to climate change

Throughout the day, artists provided evidence of creative responses to environmental change. Rob St John showed a film about the “Concrete Antenna”, a sound installation at Newhaven, near Edinburgh. The antenna evokes the site’s various histories as a blacksmith, a railway siding and now a thriving creative workshop beside a wildlife-rich cycle route.

Later, Marlene Creates explained the development of her Boreal Poetry Garden in six acres of forest outside St John’s, Newfoundland. During the summer months, Marlene leads visitors on a walk through the garden, pausing to read site-specific poems. Sometimes, special guests, such as geologists or musicians will add further dimensions to the walk.

The garden is Marlene’s way of raising awareness about the threat to the Boreal forest, which covers a vast area across Canada, Russia, Scandinavia and a small part of Scotland. As Marlene observed, its immensity is no guarantee of its protection from climate change and deforestation. Even in her own neighbourhood, she reported, parts of the forest are being converted to lawns.

Like many of the contributions to the EcoCultures event, Marlene’s poetry garden served as a reminder that individuals and communities are finding ever-more creative ways to describe, protect and live with their ever-changing environment.

 

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Can investing in public art really improve wellbeing?

Arria

‘Arria’ By Andy Scott. Image: Heather Cameron

“...a new beginning of people and place…a voice calling out I belong…” (‘Watershed’ by Jim Carruth)

By Heather Cameron

Public art can be seen everywhere these days, from parks to town centres, from hospital settings to overlooking motorways.

Along with thousands of motorists, on my daily commute I pass one arguably iconic piece by award winning public artist Andy Scott – Arria, dubbed ‘Angel of the Nauld’ as Cumbernauld’s answer to Gateshead’s Angel of the North.

It is certainly an eye-catching piece, projecting different images at night when it is lit up by multi-coloured lights. Commissioned as part of a drive to regenerate the area, which had previously won the Scottish Carbuncle award, it was hoped it would “create a sense of place and provide a positive statement about the town”. But can public art really lead to such outcomes?

Value of public art

There has been growing recognition in recent years of the contribution that public art can play in improving public spaces and potentially quality of life for residents.

According to Public Art Online, the main assertions made about the value public art brings include that it:

  • Enhances the physical environment;
  • Creates a sense of place and distinctiveness;
  • Contributes to community cohesion;
  • Contributes to social health and wellbeing;
  • Contributes to economic value through inward investment and tourism;
  • Fosters civic pride and confidence;
  • Raises quality of life;
  • Reduces crime.

A recent survey reveals that “artists, consultants, local authorities and organisations within the health and education sectors largely agreed that public art: played an important role in local, regional and national identity; improved the design of the environment; and performed an important social role”.

Nevertheless, with continuing cuts to public spending and increasing scrutiny as to how local authorities spend public funds, it is not unusual to hear people questioning the money spent on art.

Although not always well received initially, such as in the case of Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North, such installations can grow to achieve an iconic status which in turn can have a positive impact on the local community, particularly in terms of identity and belonging, thus arguably improving wellbeing.

A recently published thesis from Durham University which uses the Angel of the North as a case study, found that 72% of local residents say the sculpture makes them feel good whenever they see it, and it makes 64% proud of Gateshead. Half of the respondents agreed that it made them feel part of a community.

While most respondents said they felt good when they saw the angel, this varied from 61% in a high deprivation area to 80% in a low deprivation area, suggesting that public art alone is not enough.

Indeed, a literature review by the Arts Council suggests that public art is most effective as part of a wider programme of regeneration. And our previous blog on street art highlighted its use in the regeneration of urban areas.

By using public art to enhance or improve public spaces, the perceptions of such places can undoubtedly be improved. It has been suggested that the use of poetry and text-based art can make public spaces feel safer and deter vandalism, as well as reconnecting a community with its history.

Art and the perception of place

Even temporary installations can have a positive impact, by encouraging interaction with the local area. The sculptures of Clyde, the official mascot of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, that were dotted throughout Glasgow during the Games formed the Clyde trail and involved designs by local children. An app was also created so people could follow the trail, hunting down the sculptures.

Similarly, the Shaun in the City trail in London has recently been extended due to popular demand. Hundreds of thousands of people have visited the sculptures since they arrived in March, with many a ‘selfie’ having been taken.

These sculptures are likely to have an indirect impact on children’s health too, with the London trail raising funds for Wallace & Gromit’s Children’s Charity to support sick children in hospitals throughout the UK. 70 sculptures will then feature in Bristol to raise funds for The Grand Appeal, the Bristol Children’s Hospital Charity.

Health benefits

In relation to health more specifically, extensive evidence demonstrating the positive impact art can have has been highlighted. In 2007, A prospectus for arts and health was published by the Arts Council. It includes a summary of research carried out in two hospitals, Middlesbrough General Hospital and the James Cook University Hospital, which compared hospital accommodation before and after the move into a newly developed building (the JCUH). One of the main questions related to the impact of new commissioned art work on users. Among the key findings were that artworks were largely valued for providing colour, distraction and a sense of calm in the public areas, and for some patients they made the hospital seem “less like a hospital”.

Surely, at a time when there has been much economic decline, anything that lifts the mood of people, whether it be a huge metal sculpture at the side of a motorway, or a humorously designed sheep, can only be a good thing.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to further information on public art and regeneration. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading:

Street art…regeneration tool or environmental nuisance?

Evaluation of a community arts installation event in support of public health, IN Perspectives in Public Health, Vol 135 No 1 Jan 2015, pp43-48

Raising our quality of life: the importance of investment in arts and culture Centre for Labour and Social Studies (2014)

Cultural value and social capital: investigating social capital, health and wellbeing impacts in three coastal towns undergoing culture-led regeneration Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health (2014)

The art of seeing things invisible (the role of the arts in urban areas), IN Urban Design, No 128 Autumn 2013, pp28-30

Promoting well-being through creativity: how arts and public health can learn from each other, IN Perspectives in Public Health, Vol 133 No 1 Jan 2013, pp52-59