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Mike White

Mike WhiteMike White is a Senior Research Fellow in Arts and Health at the Centre for Medical Humanities and St. Chad’s College, University of Durham, UK. He studied English at Exeter College, Oxford, but ran away from an early career in academia to explore pioneering arts initiatives in social justice. He has been involved in arts in health work since 1988 when he set up the first arts in primary care project in the UK at Brierley Hill. His work for the Centre for Medical Humanities has included nurturing arts in health projects in schools and communities, workforce development programmes in creativity in healthcare, project-based evaluations, and audits and literature reviews of arts in health for Government agencies. He is currently developing the arts in health component of an inter-disciplinary 5-year research programme in medical humanities, funded by major grant from the Wellcome Trust, which explores the question “what makes for human flourishing?”

In 2005, Mike was awarded a fellowship of the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts to research community-based arts in health and build national/international links in this field. A resulting book Arts Development in Community Health: a social tonic was published by Radcliffe in 2009, and in June this year Mike convened the first international ‘critical mass’ meeting to set up ongoing exchanges of research and practice.

Mike was previously at Gateshead Council where he developed many arts in health and arts for older people projects, as well as public art commissions such as the landmark Angel of the North by Antony Gormley. He has also worked as Development Director of the influential celebratory theatre company Welfare State International, and a long time ago he was a founder member of WOMAD, the international music festival agency. He has many published articles and has lectured widely on arts in health at universities and conferences in the UK, several EC countries, Japan, South Africa, Australia, Canada and USA. This year’s AHA conference marks Mike’s seventh visit to Australia in five years, so he now considers himself a part-time Australian.

Art in Health - a New Prognosis

I have been involved in both the practice and research of community-based arts in health for over twenty years. In my book Arts Development in Community Health: a social tonic (Radcliffe, 2009), I explained the development of this field and its potential for realising a social model of health, described the characteristics of the practice from primary research into projects in the UK and Australia and two other countries, considered the challenges the work poses for research and evaluation, and looked at how 'connected communities' would be the key to future development.

I see that my arts in health work is becoming increasingly hybrid, encompassing support for arts in health initiatives in schools and communities, the development of learning programmes and networks in arts in health, project-based research and inter-disciplinary evaluation. Current changes in infrastructure and policy in the UK health sector and the challenges these present suggest there is now a need to explore not just which arts in health models work best in what contexts; what I think is becoming clear is that the practice of arts in health needs first to re-adjust conceptually and in delivery. Current research in arts and health is moving beyond single project studies that attempt to measure therapeutic impact to multi-site studies using combined methodologies in a ‘theory of change’ model to assess the social and environmental as well as clinical dimensions of benefit. Furthermore, the interdisciplinary approach of medical humanities could be useful in articulating complex issues around human flourishing – which is the dominant work theme at the Centre for Medical Humanities in Durham where I am based. What is also apparent is that capacity building is becoming a central factor in the practice of arts in health, and so in respect of staff involvement it can be evaluated as a learning programme. The quality of professional partnership is a crucial factor that has so far been under-examined in the research of arts in health.

In the UK the imminent transfer of public health into local government is likely to demonstrate even more the delivery of health promotion by hybrid professions and partnerships rather than by traditional specialists, and this could provide useful connection points and shared learning for international practice. It could be an effective incubator for arts in health commissions, residencies and longitudinal research in arts in community health.

Achieving Critical Mass - A Panel Discussion on international development of research and practice in community-based arts in health

In June this year, the Centre for Medical Humanities convened a ‘critical mass’ meeting in Durham of its international partners in community-based arts in health. Leading practitioners and researchers in this field came from the UK, United States, Australia, South Africa, Mexico and Ireland to reflect on shared issues in applying arts practice to healthcare and medicine and to explore how meaningful international research collaborations can be developed that also involve local communities. Over a weekend of four half–day sessions we explored our understandings of community-based arts in health in a global context, identified key issues for international collaboration in both practice and research, and envisioned what success would look like in five years’ time with a practical timeline to get us there.

We saw that effective international collaboration comes from learning from different contexts and looking through different lenses. But we kept returning to questions of whether there are different types of language we should use to frame advocacy arguments for arts in health to participants, partners and policy makers. Must everything be recalibrated for context and cultural diversity, or are there global metaphors for arts in health and a shared set of values and principles? A kind of retro-fit question posed at the outset of our meeting was “what is the problem to which we think we are the solution?”.

It seemed from the emergent collaborations of those at ‘critical mass’ that we might, for example, collectively test out hypotheses around what makes for human flourishing and extend these into global practice, ascertaining their relevance and application. ‘Flourishing’ ups the game on considering what makes for health and happiness – it can cope with ambiguity of circumstance and sees in both philosophical and social justice perspectives that it is not possible to flourish at the expense of others. We might show that international collaboration articulates a new world of arts in health practice which demonstrates value and captures imagination. A word that became currency at our meeting to describe impact and dissemination was ‘viral’, in a benign and organic sense. The panel will present views from several of those who took part in the ‘critical mass’ on the opportunities and challenges it presented and we will invite discussion on how we might move forward on meaningful international collaboration in arts in health.