Mike White writes: Volume 3 Issue 3 of this international UNESCO e-journal
is a special issue edited by Mike White and Sarah Atkinson of the Centre for Medical Humanities and Margret Meagher of Arts and Health Australia on international approaches to participatory and community-based arts in health. The papers originate from UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, and they cover both rigorous research and close-hand descriptions of process which together may help the reader to formulate ideas of what common ground and purpose there can be in international exchange in the field. This special issue is aimed at practitioners as well as academic researchers, and that has been reflected in the choice of papers and their independent peer reviewers.
François Matarasso’s paper ‘Creative Progressions’ establishes a keynote for the special issue through a well-argued discussion from both philosophical and practical standpoints of some commonly misunderstood notions of ‘quality’ in participatory arts practice. It raises issues that are crucial for the effective delivery and evaluation of community-based arts in health projects, and makes an important contribution to understanding the complex ‘quality’ issue that is at the heart of debate on socially responsible art. Another paper that should provoke discussion is Annick Jansen’s openly subjective multi-media account of the progress of an autistic artist schooled in New Zealand towards gaining the recognition of the international art world.
On the frontline of practice, there is Michelle Jersky et al’s strong narrative account of her immersion in developing creativity in an at-risk community in New South Wales to address the social determinants of health. There is useful knowledge transfer and crossover potential in her report to inform work with marginalised groups elsewhere, whilst keeping in mind the well-described cultural parameters and sensitivities inherent in her work with a specific indigenous population.
The two papers for Ireland, by Áine Ní Léime and Ann Leahy respectively, provide complementary insights into the practice and research of arts work with older people. Bealtaine is a national arts for older people festival that is now influencing the development of similar initiatives in several countries. The scale of this event and the impact it has had on the well-being and cultural vitality of a nation’s older generation is extraordinary. Leahy’spaper summarising a study of arts in some of Ireland’s care homes revisits the ‘quality of life’ issue in a policy context and contrasts it with first-hand observations. Together these papers offer a powerful argument for the efficacy of the arts in relieving the care burden and upholding the dignity and agency of elders. Their views are supported internationally by the papers from Richard Coaten and Tina Heeley of the UK and Julia Gross Macadam of Australia who provide illuminating accounts of appropriate methodologies for research-guided practice in work with people with dementia.
For hard evidence of the benefits of arts in health there are scientific papers worked up from meticulously constructed case studies by Julia Anwar McHenry on rural practice in Western Australia, Ian Morrison et al’s pathological and mental well-being data that constitute the benefits of singing arising from the explosion of interest in choirs for health in the UK, and Costanza Preti’s assessment of the best arts approaches to relieving stress for children and their families in inner-city hospitals in London and on their return to the community. Finally Susan Hogan and Lorna Warren’s paper addresses, through comparative assessment of some UK arts in health projects for women, the predominant issue in the World Health Organisation’s assessment of what matters most for global health; namely, the improvement of women’s well-being and health literacy.
The papers in this special issue together show that the research agenda for arts in health is vast as there is now a broad spectrum of practice and it is still innovative and curious. The emergence of small cross-national collaborations brings a renewed significance to narrative-based research because of the need to respect and reconcile differing cultural nuances in the application of creativity to health promotion. Finding common ground here precedes the challenge of identifying the relative medical and cost benefits across different systems of health education and welfare. The ‘healthy living’ stories we generate and exchange are the basis for international practice in arts in community health.