Thinking Globally About Community-Based Arts In Health: Mike White reports

Participants at the 2011 Critical Mass

Mike White writes: What a remarkable event our international ‘critical mass’ meeting, held last month in Durham, turned out to be.  The opportunity to have almost all our favourite people from research and practice in the arts in health field – from the UK, USA , South Africa, Australia, Ireland and Mexico – all together in the same room was both daunting and exciting.  ‘Critical mass’ now seems too portentous a description for the flights and fancies of our spiralling conversation that was facilitated with all the haste and purpose of a TV makeover show.  Over a weekend of four half–day sessions we explored our understandings of community-based arts in health in a global context, identified key issues for international collaboration in both practice and research, and envisioned what success would look like in five years’ time with a practical timeline to get us there.

Mike White, Mary Robson and 'The Sticky Wall'

To move us from blue skies thinking to deeper reflection, we deployed the CMH tool in trade known as ‘the sticky wall’.  This is a low-tech device to gather the collective wisdom of the room, cluster thoughts and ideas, and then tabulate them under categories.  Our understandings of arts in health spanned fifteen categories, the largest and possibly most cautionary ones being how to get the ‘best fit’ of research and practice, issues of terminology, methods of engaging people and developing creative space.  It made clear also that what was missing on the wall were participants’ voices on what it feels like to do arts in health, and this led us into complex discussions on diversity, inclusion and advocacy. We agreed we must examine ‘internationalisation’ of arts in health carefully, knowing exactly why we want this and what are the ideological pitfalls that might otherwise arise from a simplistic neo-liberal agreement.

We saw that effective international collaboration comes from learning from different contexts and looking through different lenses. But we kept returning to questions of whether there are different types of language we should use to frame advocacy arguments for arts in health to participants, partners and policy makers. Must everything be recalibrated for context and cultural diversity, or are there global metaphors for arts in health and a shared set of values and principles? A helpful development on this front might be the establishment of an international media centre able to translate across cultures and healthcare systems and present community–based arts in health as an increasingly global phenomenon that is sharing its ideas on practice and clustering around a common research agenda.  As we grow an evidence base from research-guided practice there needs to be some relaxation of intellectual property so that findings can be accessed and redistributed globally.

I was intrigued by a retro-fit question posed at the outset of our meeting: “what is the problem to which we think we are the solution?” It occurred to me that from the emergent collaborations of those at ‘critical mass’ we might, for example, collectively test out hypotheses around what makes for flourishing and extend the CMH concepts into global practice, ascertaining their relevance and application. ‘Flourishing’ ups the game on considering what makes for health and happiness – it can cope with ambiguity of circumstance and sees in both philosophical and social justice perspectives that it is not possible to flourish at the expense of others. We might show that international collaboration articulates a new world of arts in health practice which demonstrates value and captures imagination.  A word that became currency at our meeting to describe impact and dissemination was ‘viral’, in a benign and organic sense.

So what happens now? If we are to keep on the timeline we have set ourselves, a lot more planning talk needs to happen severally and jointly to lead us into a set of actions from next year. Firstly we propose to collaborate on a series of journal articles arising from our discussions. It would be worth writing a reflective article on the ‘critical mass’ approach and process, alongside articles from us that look at our current work through the lens of internationality.  Secondly, we should assess how the motivation we have to connect in meaningful relationships through ‘critical mass’ helps share and  reduce the cost of collaboration, so we can begin to identify resources and budget a programme. Thirdly, we should move forward from a modest and realistic baseline on furthering exchanges of practice and joint research, starting with a joint panel presentation to the international arts and health conference in Canberra this November.

As we progress the timeline we will also share our thinking with wider networks of practice and other disciplines.  We started this immediately after ‘critical mass’ by holding forums on Tyneside and in Manchester for arts in health practitioners in the Northern region to hear from our international visitors, and this has already initiated more links and dialogue.  We also took some of our visitors to Looking Well healthy living centre in Bentham, North Yorkshire, to see how arts in health practice has become embedded in a rural community. Here Alison Clough, Creative Director of Pioneer Projects/Looking Well, introduced her ‘discovery outcome tool’ (developed by her at a CMH ‘artist intensive’ last year) through the medium of a town hall dinner with Looking Well participants reading poems and singing between courses.  Everything was presented in beautiful symmetry and it was a perfect expression of the principles in the work. It showed how evaluation was not only central to the work but could be creatively imbued. We even adopted Bentham’s ‘Little Red Bus’ as our transport of choice and visited the splendid topiary and Tudor gardens of Levens Hall in Cumbria.  Yes, it was the good life that week, and thanks to all at Pioneer Projects for organising it.  Thanks also to Wellcome Trust and Arts Council England for supporting ‘critical mass’ and helping us get everyone there.

(More photos are available here)

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1 Response to Thinking Globally About Community-Based Arts In Health: Mike White reports

  1. I for one, was deeply engaged in the process and am left with a desire to make-real some of the potential captured on the day, and at a local (well, regional) level, am having interesting conversation around the language we use when describing our work both internally and with an as yet, un-engaged public.

    I’ve had the good opportunity to work with a number of people with chronic health conditions over the last month and this is constantly reminding me of why I do this work and to some extent, gives me permission to act as some kind of conduit with wider communities of interest, which in very real terms, couldn’t have engaged meaningfully in such a concentrated process as the critical mass.
    Hearing other participants stories has yet again, ignited my desire to collaborate with diverse partners. Films like the ones that Peter Wright shared, have stimulated some great discussions here in the North West, and for a number of us, enabled us to think about how we tell the story of why we work with people who might be turned off by the arts, and what are the means for conveying our journeys.

    Although I’m not sure that we have to frame our practice in solutions to problems, testing out hypotheses on a palette of issues will undoubtedly enrich the knowledge base. I am left feeling even more committed to taking forward what surface as our shared values, which I believe will emerge as universal, but with a myriad of nuances. An early conversation I was involved in, in Durham, posited the idea of each of us sharing ideas from the event and asking questions too. For me, this notion of the viral is always useful, and if we each have meaningful dialogue with a number of people who can’t realistically take part in events like the critical mass, we can at least be actively reflective of and responsive to, a wider field.

    Clive Parkinson

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