In The Press: Beth chats to Art & Museum on Museums and the Art of Social Wellness

The society in which we live is increasingly stressed, anxious and lonely. The charity, Mindfulness, recorded that 1 in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year, whilst in any given week 1 in 6 people report experiencing anxiety and depression. Interestingly, as individuals and groups begin to respond to growing concerns over social wellness and the levels of health being promoted within communities, it is galleries, museums and artists who are taking centre stage to support those most affected by the weighted demands of modern life.

To state that the creative impulse is fundamental to the experience of being human is no radical thought. In fact, we are looking to art as an old solution for modern problems.  A research group within the Royal Society for Public Health observed that, ‘For early civilizations, aesthetic beauty in objects or surroundings and soothing rhythms of words, movement and music contributed to the balance and harmony between bodily systems and environment which was believed to maintain good health.’ Daisy Fancourt in her 2017 book Arts in Health: Designing and Researching Interventions, explored this further and argued that the birth of art was also the birth of arts in health. Engagement with the arts – through witnessing art and objects within daily life, attending cultural events and participating in creative activity – forms part of an individual’s experience that allows for conversations to widen and channels of communication that generate impactful and positive effects.

Of the 2,500 museums and galleries in the UK, some 600 have programmes targeting health and wellbeing. As collections continue to be interpreted, researched and displayed, they also inspire a heightened demand for events programmes that include social meeting opportunities. Since 2005, The Dulwich Picture Gallery has run the Good Times: Art for Older People Programme, which accepts referrals from GPs of isolated, lonely or depressed patients. A broad and free programme is offered, including gallery tours and participatory arts workshops, which place a consistent emphasis on quality and offer chances to socialise, as well as adopting an intergenerational approach by engaging young people from local schools and colleges. Benefits have been found to range from mental stimulation to increased confidence and positive outlook.

The Bethlem Royal Hospital, founded in 1247 to specialise in the care of the mentally ill, now boasts in its grounds the Bethlem Museum of the Mind. Opened by artist Grayson Perry in March 2015, the Museum’s internationally-renowned collection of archives, art and historic objects offers an unparalleled resource for the support and education of mental health and treatment, alongside a continuous stream of events from art world talks to crochet.

The current exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery uses the gallery’s own collection of artworks to create a space in which the relationship between art, positive mental health and wellbeing can be explored. The exhibition, And Breathe…, has been co-curated with mental health groups Start in Manchester and Manchester Mind, as well as pupils from a Community Primary School. The exhibition mixes the historic with the contemporary, from an early 20th century Gwen John interior to more abstract, surreal and modernist works, including artists such as Yves Tanguy, Paul Nash and Barbara Hepworth.  Everything from the colour scheme and seating arrangement to the height of the artworks and their interpretations has been developed to encourage people to spend time in the space and to enjoy its meditative qualities.

ARTIQ artist Georgie Mason captures through her paintings an atmospheric beauty and serene quality that reflects the natural world. Georgie is particularly interested in the therapeutic effects of art and teaches relaxed, informal workshops from her London-based studio throughout the week. When discussing her personal thoughts surrounding art and wellness, she states, ‘Layers of paint peeling off an old door and revealing years of history; a shadow across a pavement; the texture of tree bark – these things often go unnoticed when people are rushing past them. That’s what I love about being an artist – my whole life, every moment, can be inspiration. There’s no rush. It’s important to me to slow down and take it all in.’

The arts can make an invaluable contribution to a healthy and health-creating society. For museums, galleries and artists to future-proof their success, their unique resources must be embraced by health and social care systems under rising pressure and in need of innovative solutions to respond to social issues. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, within their 2017 Inquiry Report, laid out ten recommendations and next steps aimed at improving practice, research and funding. Amongst the ten, it is research, education and the dissemination of knowledge that must be used to promote collaboration across many sectors – from arts and health to education. A collaborative sense of community will enable further innovations in arts and culture that will encourage wellness and benefit us all.

Written by Beth Fleming, Curator, ARTIQ