How can the Arts impact wellbeing in our communities? - RSA

How can the Arts impact wellbeing in our communities?

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  • Picture of Julie O'Donnell FRSA
    Julie O'Donnell FRSA
  • Mental health
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If I asked a room full of people how many of us have had our lives enriched by the arts, I’m guessing that most would say they had – and that’s exactly what happened at a talk I gave for the RSA Fellows Taunton on ‘The impact of the arts on wellbeing in the community’. But I believe our responses to that question are almost instinctive: how do we really and truly know the impact the arts can have on us?

Valid Claims or Fairy Tales

There are many claims that the arts have a beneficial impact on the economy. In 2013, Arts Council England commissioned a report and found that the arts and culture sector had a turnover of £12.4 billion, which provides more than one in twelve jobs in the UK creative sector. In respect of Gross Value Added (GVA), which is the net benefit once the external cost has been stripped out, there’s also a 35.8% increase between 2010 and 2013 to £7.7 billion.

So are these statistics just fairy tales? Not at all: a great example is the regeneration in the north-east – and I am partisan here, being born and brought up there. I can confirm that Gateshead was the Cinderella of the Newcastle area until the local council identified that art was intrinsic to economic regeneration. Despite being initially ridiculed by many locals, the Angel of the North provided huge opportunities for marketing; it also inspired further investment in the Sage, now with a GVA impact of £8.5m per annum and the most significant arts venue outside London. It has contributed £283m in ten years to the regional economy. Arguably another potential impact of art is creating a sense of belonging, and this is embodied for me in knowing that I’m almost home when I pass the Angel of the North, and almost in my adopted home when I pass Sedgemoor’s Willow Man.

More globally, a 2015 report by the Cultural Times confirmed UNESCO’s assertion regarding the contribution of the cultural and creative industries to sustainable development and to economic growth as creating 29.5 million jobs worldwide. In the UK it is also estimated that tourism contributes close to £1 billion per annum to the arts and culture economy. Visitors spend money on attending the arts and on local businesses – perhaps even visiting specifically or staying longer for an event. Local spending by these arts venues and businesses has multiplier effects. For example, visitors to our local Brewhouse Theatre in Taunton might stay at a hotel; the theatre might spend money on local musicians, lighting or set design; people might buy drinks or have a pre- or post-theatre meal; and so on. But we could debate that if you draw more visitors and tourists from outside the community than, say, a local community arts project might, there is less of a direct impact on local community members. So which is of greater benefit and has the most impact on the community’s ultimate wellbeing?


The Domino Effect

Many reports indicate that the arts attract residents and businesses to a community by improving its image and making it more appealing. This is especially true for attracting skilled, high-wage residents who will have a larger economic impact than less skilled, low wage people. Continuing with this domino effect, people may invest in property in an area that they feel is ‘up-and-coming’ because of the presence of the arts. And then banks may be more likely to lend to businesses in those areas, and so on. As the ex-chair of the Arts Council, Sir Peter Bazalgette, succinctly puts it, ‘The new city quarters where young people want to live, work and create companies need a soul as well as a sewer.’ However, one issue in determining the impact of the arts is distinguishing between revenue from locals versus revenue from tourists. And do the arts simply represent an alternative outlet for spending for locals rather than an additional outlet? And would investing the same amount of money in something else have a stronger impact on the local economy? There is little research on that and it’s definitely something to work on.

What about the impact above and beyond – or even alongside – the economic benefit? We all seem to be aware that art matters to our quality of life, and again there are dozens of pieces of relevant research. For example, global organisation People United looked at how art affects psychology and civil society and showed compelling evidence of positive changes in how people think, feel and act towards one another after participating in arts experiences – in other words, the arts were impacting on kindness. Other studies indicate that art builds interpersonal ties and promotes volunteering, builds community identity and pride, and even reduces delinquency in high-risk youth. Further to the impact on young people, I discovered a statistic quoted by Harriet Harman in a Labour party report. Apparently ‘Students from low income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree.’ There is also a demonstrable correlation between schoolchildren’s grades in maths and literacy, and their involvement with drama or music activities – the ‘Mozart effect’, which also enhances visuospatial reasoning.

So other than in schools, in what community services might we find art having an impact? Arguably art has an impact in hospices, hospitals, prisons and even shopping malls. Examples include care homes (researchers from Newcastle University found that viewing contemporary visual art had positive effects on the personal lives of nursing home patients). Other interesting examples include the work of orchestras, such as the Royal Philharmonic that runs workshops for people with dementia and provides musicians in residence working with adults with a complex range of mental health issues and the Reading Well Books on Prescription scheme in doctors’ surgeries. Many projects are supported by Arts Council England or the UK National Lottery – and that means by you and me. We are all contributing to the wellbeing of others when we buy a Lottery ticket or in paying our taxes.

Locally, in Somerset, Take Art’s ‘Time to Move’ 3-year-long case study reflected national findings and painted a vivid picture of the health impact of the arts, in this case the impacts from older people taking part in dance. The analysis does, I believe, support a wide range of arguments about how to measure the impact on wellbeing in society. 66.7% of respondents said it had increased their confidence (distracting thoughts from problems at home, making them feel more mobile, happier and stronger); 89.6% said they felt healthier (balance, posture and coordination were improved, reducing aches and pains and therefore helping with independence); improvement to quality of life or wellbeing for 86.7% was through improving memory by learning sequences, making friends, increasing energy and patience. Many had increased their interest in attending training or education. Of course, it doesn’t take a lot to work out that this must, though it’s virtually impossible to quantify, have an impact on health and social care budgets: fewer falls, fewer drugs being prescribed, improved mental health and so on. Happily, an increasing number of studies are examining these issues, from grass roots up to government levels.


Private Experience, Public Impact?  

Returning to the question I posed at the beginning, ‘How many of us have had our lives enriched by the arts?’, it really helps to drill down into what has had a profound effect on us as individuals, and why. For me, it has included West Side Story, reflecting racial and gang tensions; drawings by those incarcerated in Second World War concentration camps; Jan van Eyk’s Arnolfini portrait, which, on my OU foundation course, first opened my eyes to really examining a piece of art; work by the Pitmen Painters, because it truly reflects my heritage; and the opening ceremony of our Olympics, with its visual and technological triumphs and those wonderful purple flames, which inspired a pride in our broader society, and the fact that we put so much positive emphasis on the Paralympics.

In personalising this, I hope I am emphasising a point: art is an intensely private thing, and therefore none of us truly knows how someone else experiences the same art. However, once we share our experiences, be they positive or negative, then we have a collective response within our community and an enhanced perception of the impact. And the opportunity to share, discuss, and challenge can only be a force for good as a contribution towards our wellbeing.    

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  • Thanks Kevin - next steps locally for us I believe are to keep the pressure on the local council to have creativity at the forefront of all plans and designs - eg in Coal Orchard and Firepool; to raise awareness of the value to us all of having space in any development plans devoted to artists - their creativity will enable a positive culture to develop and will encourage visitors and help with place-making. And I really do think that landmarks (as per the Angel of the North in my article) are often derided and loathed at their inception - however they ultimately help create a sense of identity. So I'd love to see one in Taunton, to mark Somerset's county town to be seen from the motorway or the train.