Exec Director talk for Arts4Dementia panel

The following brief talk was given as part of a panel focused on music convened by Arts4Dementia in January 2022. You can listen to a recording here.

I’m going to start by quoting the Arts4Dementia report last year in which one of your supporters, Andy Burnham, says

“I think ‘care’ is helping people do what they love to do, allowing them to connect with their passions, what animates them in life.”

I’m going to work from the assumption that like Andy Burnham we all believe that giving people access to creativity at moments of crisis is an essential expression of care. What we’re interested in at the Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance is how we can make sure this becomes not the exception but the rule.

It’s important to say that social prescribing is just one mechanism for helping health services connect with creativity. There are already tens of thousands of people delivering this kind of work around the country in hospitals, in clinics, and in many different community settings. As an organisation we have 6,000 members, most of whom are the practitioners driving this work forward – many freelancers, many small arts organisations. Our reports in 2020 highlighted 100 of these arts organisations reaching people shielding at home or stuck in institutions during lockdown and supporting mental and physical health. But social prescribing at this moment, with a certain amount of backing from government, has the potential to be a really important mechanism to take this further.

Going back to the Arts4Dementia report, Prof Martin Marshal, chair if the RCGPs, says that

“The shift for us in general practice is not just engaging with …medical activities …but engag[ing] with social activities, and make sure the two are aligned.”

This a logistical problem and a cultural one; it represents a huge culture change in primary care, social care, public health – and also in the cultural sector. At CHWA we work with a network of regional champions, like social prescribing network, to make sure that we understand the realities of this work on the ground. How does a freelance musician actually get involved in social prescribing, for example? There is no real answer to that question at the moment. A lot of very passionate and determined people have found ways, by just knocking on every door they come across. But it’s a tiring process, it’s pretty arbitrary, and it’s very dependent on individuals. GPs and linkworkers might want to prescribe into arts programmes, and arts organisations might want to be supporting people’s health - but there are some amazing examples dotted around the country, we don’t have a consistent and efficient system for making that happen.

The real answer to this – not very romantically – is proper investment. The government has committed a certain amount to the linkworker programme, although arguably not enough – but almost no funding for people providing the prescriptions. Your report highlights the Thriving Communities fund, which is an exception, and a great model for bringing together collaborators across health and specialist community organisations. It’s good to know that there is some potential for that to be extended; what I hope it will catalyse is investment into giving these cross-sector collaborations can have a long-term future. We know from our own surveys that the vast bulk of creative work supporting health is funded through project grants from charitable trusts and foundations. So we have a very precarious project-based system trying to meet a big, statutory system. We need investment into an infrastructure that can build the kind of alignment that Martin Marshall describes.

There are some real beacons out there taking a more strategic approach: in Gloucestershire, the Clinical Commissioning Group has invested in arts on referral for two decades, and this has led to significant falls in GP consultation rates and hospital admissions. In 2020, Greater Manchester Combined Authority launched A Social Glue, aligning culture with Manchester’s commitments to health equity as the UK’s first Marmot city-region. In Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, the Council’s Culture and Public Health teams have developed a Creative, Health and Wellbeing Partnership with a particular focus on addressing health inequalities, improving mental wellbeing and addressing loneliness and isolation. This kind of place-based partnership work can respond to local priorities and provide a network for creative practitioners working in this area to be able to find a way into health.

It's this kind of joined up thinking that will give us a chance to spread the work we all know should be happening everywhere.

Music, like all creativity, offers the chance to transform the story for individuals and their families at moments of deep crisis and change. But this cannot be about one-off miraculous events any more; this is about how we can make the miraculous into the everyday.