Meeting People Where They Are

Holly Sandiford Director of ArtatWork CIC

Making and appreciating art challenges and enriches us, helping us to us forget our everyday struggles and remember what matters to us. It plays an important role in healing contemporary afflictions of loneliness, stress, insecurity and social division. The artist, Grayson Perry says “A world without art is an inhuman world. Making and consuming art lifts our spirits and keeps us sane. Art, like science and religion, helps us make meaning from our lives, and to make meaning is to make us feel better.”

A belief in the transformative power of the arts was fundamental in driving my colleague Melanie Tilford and I to form ArtatWork CIC. We work with young people, families and women with mental health issues and use the visual arts to increase wellbeing, encourage creativity and build community. We also deliver training in funding, planning, delivering and evaluating arts and wellbeing projects for artists and arts organisations.

I have worked in community-based arts for twenty years with a wide range of people and projects, including leading an Arts on Prescription programme, carnival arts, young people’s and refugee arts projects and running an arts centre for adults with learning difficulties. We currently run three weekly arts and wellbeing groups for women. I will draw on this experience to investigate what hinders women with mental health issues accessing and engaging with the visual arts, and what we can do, as artists and arts organisations, to help counteract this.

Many of the women we work with are coping, not only with their mental health but with a multitude of obstacles such as Aspergers, poverty, trauma, physical health issues, domestic abuse and caring responsibilities. Just getting out of the door to come to one of our projects takes enormous courage. Most people have felt the fear of starting a new group but if you have mental health issues that fear might feel more like terror. These women are brave, fighting daily battles against deep-rooted negative self-belief and debilitating anxiety.  Recognising this is important as it adds perspective; we can undermine and underestimate our own struggles, especially when we are amid them.

Traditional methods of engaging people for projects such as social media, posters and newspaper articles are mostly ineffectual when working within this context. It’s more productive to run taster sessions and talk to people in spaces they’re already accessing services and are comfortable in. This establishes a rapport and helps dispel unnecessary anxieties. People who have anxiety disorders or who are on the autistic spectrum are likely to appreciate this. They will know what to expect from the sessions and can ask about anything that is worrying them.  It is worth planning this engagement process into the project at the initial design phase as it takes time to build both links with other organisations and the trust of the individual.

We have a good relationship with the local mental health trust and other voluntary and statutory services. These organisations have already put time and energy into building trust so recommendations from them should be more effectual. Many women come with support workers or friends and we encourage them to do this for as long as they need. Vicky Crump, Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust said of the group “Lovely, welcoming, friendly, well-led group promoting wellbeing and connection through the exploration of art.”

Mental ill-health is a huge issue of our time.  Approximately one in four people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year. It is likely that most people reading this are, or have been, affected by mental ill health, either personally or through a friend or family member. A benefit of running your own organisation is that you get to define your ethos- the values and guiding beliefs that underpin what you do. Creating a ‘them and us’ culture is detrimental to people’s recovery and a barrier to a meaningful engagement. We are honest about our own struggles in life, although it is not appropriate in all situations to do this. Care needs to be taken around sharing personal details and we need to be aware of burdening participants with our problems.

We try to create a calm, inviting and non-judgemental atmosphere. We choose spaces that are private, contained and non-clinical so that participants feel safe and relaxed. Clear boundaries, robust safeguarding and health and safety practices are essential to protect staff, volunteers and participants. The art of facilitating is to be both authentic and professional but this is a difficult balance to maintain. Hence, we are continually monitoring and fine-tuning our approach and reviewing feedback from participants, to ensure that we are getting it right. Kim, who has now moved into employment, said “It gave me a sense of belonging, everyone was so caring, genuine and I felt extremely safe, supported and not judged. Which was crucial as I had low self-esteem and had physical symptoms which would scare me. The group has enabled me to gain a rapport and meet some fantastic women who were caring, empathic and great listeners! We all had a mutual understanding as everyone was there for their own reasons.  It was lovely to be in an environment where I could be me at that moment in time and not feel the pressures of society and being someone, I wasn’t.”

Once we have initially engaged participants, with their input we co-design our sessions to be enjoyable and achievable and to build confidence. It is important not to set people up to fail, which can happen unintentionally. We constantly hear that people were told as children they weren’t creative or they are lacking in confidence so we choose techniques which produce good visual results. The co-designing of projects is especially important when working with people who are passive receivers of services elsewhere. It helps to ensure they don’t become overly dependent on you. It is also a way of valuing your participants whilst bringing fresh, unexpected ideas and practical solutions to projects. They are much more likely to stay engaged and to encourage others to do the same.

We find that once women have built up their creative confidence; they access other arts activities, often with others from the group. They are likely to continue these friendships and to access creative activity beyond the reach of the project. It is important to encourage this independence because of the insecurity in continuation that comes from short-term funding for projects.  

Most people have a finely tuned awareness of where they fit into social and cultural situations: for example their clothes, accent and ability to engage in conversations about what they are seeing or experiencing. ‘Taking Part’, a survey of participation in culture and sport, found that people who get involved in creative activity and visit galleries and museums are disproportionately well-educated, affluent professionals in the 55 to 74 age range, who also visited galleries and museums as young people.

Whatever the organisation, institution or art form, access is about breaking down barriers and reaching out so that people feel welcomed and accepted, adapting spaces to meet needs. Art, poetry and theatre in public spaces is a way to meet people where they are; for example art on railings and pop up exhibitions. Going out and talking to people allows organisations to challenge misguided perceptions or anxieties about participation in a cultural activity.

We had a discussion in the group about going to galleries and the responses were interesting. “The cost/entrance fees put me off. I don’t drive so it would normally have to be accessible by public transport. I don’t like going on my own either. So going with someone else and having transport to get there would be important in making them accessible for me”. “They are snobby and expensive and disability parking is an issue. Also, I would want to go a little and often as I get tired looking around for too long, but if you pay to go in, then you want to make the most of it. Big, open spaces can also be overwhelming”.

It is important to consider how we define quality cultural engagement, and how we might impose ideas of ‘good culture’ upon others. Talking about art enables people to decide what they like and why and gives them the confidence to express this without fear of humiliation.  Looking at art is a personal, subjective process and teaching people to look provides the tools to democratises this. Emphasizing that there is not a right or wrong way to look and that their opinion is as valid as any other is key. The sensitivity and subtlety of responses are often extraordinary because they’re rooted in real life experience and raw emotion. Alison, a participant says  “If I hadn’t met you all,  I would have thought art was a lot of splashes on a canvas looking a mess. Talking, going to art exhibitions has opened my eyes, It’s made me more aware of my surroundings, it has made me interested in galleries, exhibitions and craft events.”

Using plain English to talk about art removes unnecessary barriers to its appreciation and understanding. It signifies that the writer, curator or artist is talking to everyone and not excluding anyone from the conversation. We need to avoid building castles of high culture which can only house those with enough social capital, education and confidence, and to bring awareness to the subconscious barriers we may put up because of privilege, upbringing and social class. If people’s personal identity is defined by their cultural capital, then they may also be resistant to culture being open and accessible to all. They may see it as dumbing down and enjoy that it has an exclusive language that they understand and can converse in.

As facilitators, we have our own tastes and prejudices but we should try not to dismiss work  that appeals to participants because of its accessibility, style and familiarity. Instead, we can use it as a springboard; for example, we are delivering an art and walking group project for women in a rural area. It is an Arts Council funded project and one aim is to expand people’s ideas of what art is and can be. Beginning the project looking at artists that have a more obvious, mass market appeal allows us to take a step-by-step approach, and introduce more controversial, unusual walking and performance artists further down the line.

Encouraging and supporting people with mental health issues to take part in cultural activity can only act to make culture more relevant and connected. The arts are a major asset in addressing health and wellbeing but we need to challenge the barriers that deter people from accessing them. Ultimately, we need to meet people where they are: emotionally, intellectually and geographically.

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