Blowing the dust off ‘Celebratory Arts for Primary Healthcare’

Mike White writes: I have put into the CAHHM Archive part of this website, in the sub-section ‘Healthcare Environments‘, a relic of a former life entitled ‘Celebratory Arts and Primary Health Care: a report on a reconnaissance visit by Welfare State International to Withymoor Village Surgery, Brierley Hill, West Midlands‘. This was a piece of work that I did with artists Alison Jones and Art Hewitt in January 1988.  This was my introduction to arts in health and is, to the best of my knowledge, the earliest UK example of an arts project working directly with primary care services from a GP surgery. It may have some small historical value to anyone interested in tracing the development of arts in health. During a short residency at Dr. Rigler’s practice the artists researched the history and demography of the Brierley Hill Estate and offered daily sessions in crafts, music and storytelling in a low-key way so as not to disturb the daily workings of the surgery.  One idea was sending out  handmade greetings cards from the practice to new mothers and this tradition continued for many years afterwards and helped to sustain almost 100% take up of vaccinations. The reconnaissance report proposed a more extensive programme of follow-up work (eventually realised in 1990) and suggested ways that artists might, with planning and consensus, provide practical and imaginative assistance to primary healthcare, particularly in the area of health education.  It was at the time a very tentative exploration of a potential new area of community arts engagement – but I know the ideas that surfaced during that week still influence the thought and practice of both myself and the two artists.  Alison Jones went on to establish Pioneer Project Ltd and Looking Well Healthy Living Centre in Bentham in the mid 1990s.

Much of this report is simply a practical assessment of how to get on an arts project within a primary care facility with consideration of what approach and art forms might work best and why.  But there is also on occasion the excited tone of a manifesto which is what makes it for me such a cute yet compelling document to read now after over 20 years’ engagement with arts in health.  Why, we asked, should not artists have their own form of Hippocratic Oath, and we went on to declare “encouraging lateral interpretation of health messages would give artists a broader social canvass on which to work and engage directly with the public. It would seem important not just to instil awareness but to celebrate it. A key benefit the arts bring is that they may reveal and pronounce our spiritual values and our biological needs and limitations. They can be a barometer of a nation’s health and their messages at best proceed intuitively from the heart. Unlike clinical pathology they cannot cure disease but they can remove unease. Celebratory arts can help raise the quality of life and make our mortality acceptable – for comprehension of disease and death is central to any celebration of life”. Flushed with these initial assessments of arts and flourishing, we concluded “That we propose the idea of collaborative and cost-effective partnerships between medical practitioners, community educators and artists may seem to reverberate with the shock of the new, but we would suggest there is potential here for a healthier culture for all”.  The naive ‘shock of the new’ has worn off but little else has changed and it remains for me a foundation insight for community based arts in health promotion. I think this is testimony to the potency of the ideas  that came out of that ‘reconnaissance’- an interesting word to have used because I suspect back then we felt we were gathering intelligence for potential intervention from a very different field of practice.

Read more of Mike’s Arts in Health posts here.

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