Live Well:Make Art

A group of health professionals, arts activists, academics and cultural producers in Greater Manchester have been discussing links between arts and health and whether connections between the two can be explored though the idea of social movements. Alan Higgins, the Director of Public Health in Oldham, recently reflected on the second meeting of this group in a blog for the RSA. Community artists and organisations have been prominently involved in what we hope will become this growing social movement and we thought readers would be interested to know more. Alan writes –

Live well: make art

At the core of this work is the conviction that people actively engaging in arts activity will benefit from it personally, will link with others in their community and be more capable of initiating change on their own terms.

Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of the NHS has said: “social movements have the power to tap into the fabric of the country in way that the NHS might never be able to do”. It was no surprise that references to social movements also appeared in discussions on Greater Manchester Devolution. Greater Manchester Devolution

By July 2015, “Nurturing a Social Movement for Change” was one of the five major transformational programmes in the GM public health programme.
(GM Public Health Agreement.) We fretted over the right verb for that title. Social movements have to come from communities, they are self-sustaining, unpredictable and not something that we commission or seek to control. However nurturing suggests we have the ability to set the environment to generate and support social movements.

My association with community arts as a volunteer and a commissioner stretches about 30 years. In approaching health as a social movement, the community arts world offered a different way of thinking. No matter how enlightened a public health practitioner I like to think I am, my approach has been shaped by years of training and working in large public sector institutions. For work on health and social movements to be different input is needed from people who do not think like me or the people I usually talk to.

The first workshop was in November 2015. We invited artists and producers, academics, administrators and health professionals. We wanted to ask ‘What excites you about these ideas?’ and ‘If it went really well, what would it look like?’

The room was full of energy and enthusiastic about the contribution that the arts can play in stimulating change. Among other things we were in agreement that

• Arts can be a catalyst to stimulate outrage
• Arts can engage people in ways that are not accessible through other means and have the brass neck to speak of emotions and their importance to health, wellbeing and life – fall in love again, take joy in people, sing a song, be mindful in a gallery
• Arts can help with defining the right to public space and the right to health.

A second workshop followed as the number of interested people grew. Live Well:Make Art was the theme. Discussion focused on values and principles, using collective intelligence to create a vision and model for acting together. People volunteered to create three projects to test and develop our understanding of what arts based social movements for health, change and being active in your community might mean.

Mapping arts and health activity in Greater Manchester

Mapping arts and health activity in Greater Manchester

A selection of Tweets with the #Livewellmakeart captures the mood of the day:
• Walking up Oxford Road with a headful of ideas and a belly full of fire
• It is a very brave thing to do bringing people together to find the common goals, brilliant.
• What a most excellent and inspiring afternoon and dialogue

Analysis of social movements suggests that this work will experience conflicting motivations and high probability of fragmentation – it will be unpredictable, there may be conflict and it might fall apart.

We recognise the uncertainty of what we are doing but take assurance from knowing that changing systems is not quick or easy. This may or may not inspire social movements as we hope but there is something worth reaching for and creative possibilities in the attempt to reach it.

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Fighting Talk -the story of the Craigmillar Film Society

There are days when even the most enthusiastic arts activist can feel uninspired. If you’re having one of those days – even if you’re not having one of those days – I’d recommend spending 15 minutes watching this great film by Plum Films  ‘Arts the Catalyst: The Craigmillar Story’  tells the story of the Craigmillar Festival Society (1962 – 2002).  Craigmillar is a large estate in Edinburgh whose residents demonstrated just what can happen when creativity is released in a community. The film won the Saltire Award for best documentary at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

Andrew Crummy, son of Helen Crummy, who was one of the people at the centre of the development of the Festival Society, is writing a chapter for our book ‘Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art’.

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The art of hospitality

Over the last year Alison has been working on a research project with three refugee organisations in Bristol – Bristol Hospitality Network, Dignity of Asylum Seekers and Barton Hill Walled Garden. Alison, Emily Cuming from the University of Leeds and Naomi Millner from the University of Bristol made up the academic team. The project was funded through the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities scheme which means that academics work in partnership with community groups to co-produce ‘new knowledge’. For us this has meant working with the staff, volunteers and participants of these organisations on a series of arts-based workshops to explore ideas about hospitality – What is it? How does it differ between cultures and from place to place? What does it mean to offer hospitality and to receive it? What is the relationship between hosts and guests? Is hospitality always positive? What power relationships might be found in hospitable encounters?

With Gerri’s help co-facilitating the initial stage of the project we planned five Table Workshops which involved working with artists Rhiannon White, Oday Alkhalidi and Deborah Aguirre Jones. Rhiannon and Oday ran two drama workshops and Deborah focused on visual art and making temporary objects and environments. These workshops culminated in a Feast weekend away in the beautiful seaside town of Coombe Martin in Devon. Here we discussed what we’d done and planned how to share this work. We’ve made a booklet and a film and these were launched at a public event in Bristol in January when we also displayed the beautiful pots that participants had made with artist Lou Gilbert Scott.

We thought you’d like to see the film and if you would like a copy of the booklet do let us know. Emily, Naomi and I will be talking about the work at conferences this year and we will also write an academic article.



Literature and Resources list This is a link to books, films, projects and other resources that we gathered during the project. We see this as an on-going resource for anyone who is interested in working through the arts with refugees and asylum seekers.

This project has made me think about how we frame knowledge and the things we find out. One of the discoveries of our research into the community arts movement of the 1970s was a certain mistrust of academic work. It was a pragmatic movement on the whole with little time for theories – these just seemed to slow things down and produce a sense of inertia when there was so much to be done. It wasn’t that community artists didn’t think deeply about their work and what they were trying to do – quite the opposite: just reading old copies of the community arts magazine Another Standard published by the Shelton Trust soon shows that. But there’s no doubt that academic research works at a different pace and sometimes different ways of knowing do bash up against each other, helpfully or not. It would be very easy to criticise schemes like Connected Communities for appearing to suddenly wake up to a way of working that community artists have carried out for many years. But that would be unhelpful because it ignores the potential of research with community groups to create the possibility of discovering new things and new ways of working, and for academic research to speak far beyond its usual boundaries.

What do you think?

We hope you enjoy the film and, as ever, would love to hear your comments.

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The Right to Make Art


We’re really pleased to post this short film, ‘The Right to Make Art’   – thanks very much to Annie Woodson, the film-maker, who has made sense of our complex brief to her and edited  hours of footage of the workshop day we held in July at Manchester University.

Join the conversation!

The film raises some interesting questions –   has community arts become institutionalised ( and some would say de-politicised?) Do some arts organisations and artists see their ‘participatory’ work as a tedious necessity in gaining funding?   What do you see as the purpose of your work?

Separate cultural spaces, shared cultural spaces: a personal note

One element that really stands out for me in the film is the mix of participants taking part and enjoying the opportunity to work together.  I think one of the adverse effects of current funding regimes is that fragmentation gets exacerbated, not addressed. So artists end up working with ‘elders’ or ‘youth’ , with ‘people with mental health issues’ or  ‘ refugees and asylum seekers’. I understand the importance of specialist knowledge and expertise. I also understand that those who are already privileged and empowered can easily colonise any cultural space, to the detriment of those who are less pushy!   However, I’m currently interested in how to make space for people to have conversations and share experiences with others whose life experience is different from theirs – if you have an interest in this, please get in touch through the blog, particularly if you work in Greater Manchester

ArtsChain: the new ‘first Tuesday of the month’ experience!

Some of the post-graduate students who helped out at the July event said in our final discussion that it had made them feel quite sad; in spite of the fact that practitioners who had started work in the 70s’ and 80s’ pointed out that there had been lots of disagreements over practice and strategies, they thought that were was a strong sense of people feeling like they belonged to a movement, shared a common cause and could bounce ideas off each other. In contrast, they often felt quite isolated and fragmented.

So on the first Tuesday of every month, a group of us (older and younger practitioners) have organised ArtsChain, an informal networking event for artists and arts organisers who see themselves as social engaged, community arts workers or participatory arts workers. It happens at Nexus Arts Café in the Northern Quarter in Manchester between 4 and 6 and it’s an opportunity to chat, let each other know about opportunities and upcoming activities and learn from each other.  People drop in for the whole two hours or for 15 minutes to say hello and come when they can – many people work free-lance and so can’t come every month. We have chosen not to apply for funding for it and just contribute what we can in terms of time and expertise to help make it work. So you do have to buy your own coffee or tea – Nexus has a great selection on offer.

It is an experiment and we’re committed to organising it until April to see how it goes – so far we’re really enjoying it. If you work in the Greater Manchester area – or are visiting on the first Tuesday of the month, why not come along? You’d be very welcome. Dates so far agreed for 2016 are January 5th, February 2nd and March 1st.

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Participation and community plays

Part of the reason for setting up this blog was to post about academic research to an audience who might not otherwise read it – academic books are expensive and articles are often only accessible to those in academic institutions (though this is now changing – but that’s a story for another day!) This blog is based on a chapter of a book provisionally called Participation and Performance, edited by Helen Nicholson and Anna Harpin (due to be published in 2016). It’s about participation and community plays and I chose to focus on the Shankill community play Crimea Square which was performed in Belfast in 2013.

What’s interesting about this is the way that it links into questions about authorship that emerged at the event which Gerri has described in our most recent blog – Unwrapping Hidden History – in July of this year. My goal in writing the chapter was to suggest that participation alone is no guarantor of the redistribution of authority that might lead to positive social change. The project threw up questions about who has the authority to write a community’s stories, levels of expertise needed to craft those into a dramatic narrative, and who can authorise the telling of a community’s stories in a public arena.

The Playwrights

Authorship and authorisation
Community plays are usually authored by a professional playwright, two of the most famous historical examples being The Poor Man’s Friend by Howard Barker in Bridport (1981) and Entertaining Strangers by David Edgar in Colchester (1985). But Crimea Square was written by four community members who worked in close collaboration with writer and community artist Jo Egan. After seeing the play and talking to the writers of Crimea Square I started to see them as ‘experts by experience’, an idea developed in mental health settings where self-help groups become, what Tesheen Noorani calls, ‘crucibles for learning’. The writers were already ‘experts’ in their own local histories. Writing the play allowed them to examine that history in a critical way and to share that complex history with a local audience.

The writers were bringing their expertise as local historians and bartering this with the team of theatre professionals for their expertise in writing and staging a play. The sense of ownership and pride for the writers – confirming their expert knowledge of their own history and their authority over their own stories – was palpable in my discussions with the writers. What Jo and her team did was to show how, in dramatizing these stories, they might be able to show some underlying complexities. Through this process all those involved came to understand that their history was more fragmented than they might have imagined.

For example, they discovered an Irish-speaking Catholic policeman who had lived on the Shankill (a traditionally Protestant area) in the early 20th century. They showed him refusing to sign the Covenant, a document which was mainly signed by northern Protestants to protest against the imposition of Home Rule by Ireland in 1912. But they showed that this wasn’t because he was a Catholic, it was because he thought his service to the community as a policeman was a big enough statement about his sense of belonging. They were also able to point out the gender discrimination in the highly patriarchal society of the time because women weren’t permitted to sign the Covenant and had to make do with a declaration. In this conversation they showed this, as well as how women were at the forefront of protests against unfair working conditions in the local tobacco factory – all in 3 exchanges of dialogue!

EVANGELINE: When you sign your name’ll be on the Covenant for the rest of time – for all to see.
BIG JIM: It won’t Miss Evangeline know all. The women signs the declaration. Only men signs the Covenant. Don’t be leading your mother into wild ways. Next thing she’ll be out in strike like them lunatics in Gallagher’s.
EVANGELINE: Oh aye, so they’re lunatics because they want paid properly and better working conditions!!

Stories can become fixed over time and if these stories can be used to divide people and reinforce a sense of difference that can’t be helpful in a place that is coming out of a protracted sectarian conflict. In the process of becoming ‘experts’ or authorities in their own histories, and in being able to perform that expertise to a wider community through the play, the writers developed personal confidence in their own skills. In the process of writing they were also meeting and working closely with playwrights and actors and this increased their confidence in getting involved in cultural opportunities from which their community often feels excluded

One of the writers summed up the cultural impact of being involved in the play:

This whole community feels that the Lyric [theatre] isn’t for them. They get the idea that it will be full of Catholics and nationalists and middle class people – and that’s fact, that’s the way it is. I still think that but now it wouldn’t stop me from being involved in it. I have the confidence to go now.

Some of the writers and actors have been involved in setting up a small theatre company called The Heel ‘n’ Ankle (rhyming slang for the Shankill) to create and perform their own work and they have now produced five plays. One of the writers is now volunteering with the Linen Hall Library, digitising their collection, some participants have written a four minute film on mental health while one is working on a novel.

Although community plays are often thought of as conservative forms of theatre in academic literature this project showed that, in the right time and location, they can be very powerful. The project picked up on a growing interest in local history in Northern Ireland and the play could have simply reinforced a restricted sectarian history of the Shankill. Instead Crimea Square seemed to encourage the writers to appreciate the ways in which identities are multiple and layered and to present those complex identities to a wider audience through the play.

Thank you to John Dougan for his permission to use these photographs.

Cast singing lesson

blog about the play

review of the play


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Making Change Happen

Comments from workshop participants

Well, I had a brilliant (if exhausting!) day on July 9th, at the University of Manchester.

I once told my mother that I wanted to change the world. With typical common sense, she pointed out that there was an awful lot of it to change. My answer was that there were thousands and thousands of people, all over the world, who wanted to do the same.

So it was inspiring to spend a day in the company of 10 artists who have made and are making change happen and listening to their collective passion, intelligence and wisdom. It was inspiring to be joined for the day by 35 workshop participants from across Greater Manchester and 5 University of Manchester students who took risks, experimented, produced work, talked, laughed and shared experiences with each other. And it was great to be able to document the day well– with the help of film-makers and a visual artist. We’ll be sharing much more about what happened and what we learned in the weeks and months to come.

I wanted to share my (preliminary) sense of what the artists thought and felt their work was about, based on interviews I carried out with them during the day. They talked about:

  • Co-authorship and collaboration
  • Fighting against injustice and inequality
  • Building community and supporting different kinds of communities
  • Encouraging individual creativity and expression, linked to wellbeing
  • Opening up wide-ranging conversations that can lead to collective action

Comments from workshop participants

Some practitioners might say their work addresses all of these themes and some might say their work is more closely aligned to one or two of them than to others.  The artists also talked about making beautiful art, making thought-provoking art, making challenging art, making art that has contemporary relevance, making art that has the power to move people.

Would you describe your practice differently?   Or have you perhaps seen or taken part in a powerful piece of work that addressed something else which should be ‘in the mix’?    Help us build the picture.

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Is community arts practice still relevant?

On Thursday, July 9th, 2015, we’ll be exploring this question in an intriguing way. With the help of a small grant from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, we’ve created an event which brings together community artists who began working in the area in the Seventies and early Eighties with artists who began working in the area much more recently. We’ll be exploring what is still common to their practice, what has changed and what can we all learn from each other.

10 brilliant artists have agreed to collaborate together on the event. We’ve paired up artists from drama, textile, print and photography, making and film and video backgrounds and they are currently learning about each other’s practice, discussing the opportunities and challenges they faced then and face now, and designing a workshop together. Organisations working in Greater Manchester are helping us out by inviting participants to the event to get involved in the workshops; we’ve told them it’s a bit of an experiment and we’re really grateful that they’ve agreed to give it a go.

During the event, Gerri will be interviewing the artists about what it’s been like working with each other (when they’re not running their workshop!), film-maker Annie Woodson will be documenting the event for a short film and visual artist Paul Gent will be documenting it too. It’s being held at Manchester University and post-graduate students have volunteered to help us out as well.

In the evening, Alison Jeffers will chair a round table discussion, inviting artists to reflect on broader questions about similarities and difference and about the place of ‘community arts’ in contemporary practice.

We will be posting more about the event in coming weeks and uploading the film and the visual art work when this is ready. It’s also part of our research for the book we’re writing about community arts (we’ve now got a contract with a publisher for this).

Meanwhile, how would you answer our question – do you think community arts practice is still relevant?

Di and Gerri on beach

Professional Development in the Seventies: Gerri on the beach in North Devon practising her juggling skills with Diana Murray, Beaford Centre Community Project. Her dress sense has since improved. Photographer: Philip Trick

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