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Human Being Creative: making arts and healthcare collaborations work

Lateral Thinking, the value of collaboration between the arts, health and environment Conference – 9th April, 2015, Glasgow

Presentation by ANDREW ORMSTON, Director of Drew  Wylie Projects

1.  Outline

  • The presentation was to a mixed audience of healthcare professionals, arts and healthcare practitioners, and artists in Glasgow’s Lighthouse.
  • The conference formed part of the launch of the 100 Flowers project commissioned by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.
  • The presentation begins with some lessons learned from working in arts and healthcare projects, the various motivations to engage with this work, and the types outcomes that can be delivered.
  • I then go on to discuss the challenges of working in cross sectorial and trans-disciplinary settings in the context of  artists and healthcare professional collaboration.
  • Finally a number of ‘tips’ are offered for those working, or wishing to work in the field.

2.  Background and Learning

  • Percent for Art in Wansbeck General Hospital – preceded much of the arts and health evidence base, and motivations were quite generalised, including a belief that artists had something to contribute to the healthcare environment.  Working across professions and sectors was underdeveloped, restricting the potential in the project.
  • Arts and Gardens in the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading.  A later project where the professional skill set of an arts development team with a strong public art track record was sought out by the hospital team.  The project involved representatives from across the hospital’s activities and this had both positive and negative impacts on the results.
  • Subsequent roles were more as a strategic partner or commissioner representing a wide arts, culture, heritage and leisure portfolio.  At this time it appeared as if project leads in the sports sub-sector were more effective in connecting evidence to investment, and in working to involve the wide range of commissioners and partners involved in work with the NHS.

 3.  A commitment to the artist and art as instrument

  • I have a career of ‘arts and’, connecting up artists and creative work with regeneration, science, community cohesion, visitor economy etc.
  • Recently I (and many others) have been working with culture, place and environment.  In Scotland this both mirrors, and responds to the policy environment where ‘people’ are central to most policy frames, including the environment.
  • I worked on a recent project with Greenspace Scotland and Youth Scotland to connect young people with diversity in their locality.  This led to projects in Glasgow’s East End with a derelict pocket park, and converting both the beds of an obsolete sewage farm in Barrhead and a disused station platform in North Edinburgh into wildflower gardens cum meadows.
  • This project demonstrated the value of artists in this kind of work, and a project in Shotts where young people worked with artists to convert abandoned cars into wildflower planters was a good example.

 4.  Motivation from a ‘life lived’

  • Most of us have a personal agenda when it comes to our healthcare perspective.  Hospitals are sites of trauma, upset and anxiety to most of us at some point or other. As Susan Sontag puts it – being ill or injured is to enter a different world, a world where you lose your bearings.  Virginia Woolf talks of needing the courage of a lion tamer to confront the great wars which the body wages with the mind.
  • What I hate most about illness is how disorientating it is – how it attacks our identity and how we construct meaning.  The otherness of hospitals can work like a magnifying glass on this loss of bearings through a parallel sensorium of different smells, sights and sounds.  They all shout ‘you are not yourself’.  Add in a transference of your other hospital experiences and you are being comprehensively removed to Sontag’s ‘kingdom of the sick’.

5.  The art instrument

  • Art and artists bring a lot more to the healthcare table than their decorative or therapeutic properties.  They can be a support for meaning making that helps people to not lose themselves in the world of their illness.
  • If hospitals are to be sites that support people to make sense of what is happening to their new ill or injured selves, then they should provide reference points and navigational aids that reach beyond the medical functionality of the place.
  • This can include work that connects you to the community in which you live, such as music or theatre that brings you a slice of your lived culture, or aural history and heritage artefact, or use of architecture or natural environment to make a direct connection to the place where you live.
  • Some of the strongest work that came through the 100 Flowers project used these sources to produce art that had a powerful resonance of the place and communities in which the hospital is situated.

6.  The connecting up challenge

  • We know more about working across professional disciplines and sectors than twenty years ago when the Wansbeck General scheme was delivered.  But there are challenges for anyone working in the arts and health domain.  It is all too easy for simple misunderstandings to lead to major problems.
  • Each sector has its own language, protocols, norms, and professional etiquette. Professionals in each sector thinks it is special with a unique frame of professional commitment and productivity.  Each professional discipline is ‘home’ to the people working in it.  Once they leave ‘home’ to collaborate on, say, arts and health then they are more exposed to risk than usual. We have yet to create a ‘safe’ trans-disciplinary and cross sectorial professional environment for those people.
  • We don’t make space in project plans for collaboration to create ideas, content and innovation.  My own research with arts and science, and with scientists and heritage professionals, clearly shows that some of the most effective work has come out of the process of working in a trans-disciplinary relationship.  We often over-prescribe in projects.

7.  Some tips

  • Don’t become too bogged down in the plethora of evidence and case studies that are used to underpin the case for a project.  Establish a clear goal that everyone can understand,buy into, and see as relevant to their own work.  Use this as a the beacon to keep you all on course.
  • Don’t make assumptions that your priorities and approach is understood by professionals from other sectors, and take the time to consider theirs.  Take the time to spell out what you are doing and why, and be like the infamous two year old, always asking ‘why?’.  The more colleagues know about your motivations the more they are likely to respond positively.
  • Don’t just accept that your usual governance or decision making and reporting model is the right one. It must give involvement and influence to all relevant parties, from patient to consultant, project manager to artist. This means governance that fits the capacity of these people to be involved, the skill set they bring with them, the kinds of decision and risk being dealt with, and the legacy that is aspired to.
  • Make the time and space for relationships to develop, and put this in the project plan.  Think this through so that this time is used well, and is not just space for more meetings.
  • Plan for ‘what next’ from day 1.  Most arts and health work lies in the domain of the project, with an all too limited time horizon. Yet we know that building on great work is what makes impact over time. Think about how you are going to build on the project’s work all of the time.  This isn’t just an issue for the project manager or fundraising team.