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Tributes to Mike White

Mike White

Vale Mike White - A World Leader in Arts and Community Health

We are sad to announce the passing of Mike White on 5 June in Durham. Mike was a luminary in the arts and health field and I considered him the world’s best in the area of arts and community health. His book "Arts Development in Community Health: a social tonic" (Radcliffe 2009) will remain a major piece of writing, continuing to inspire and inform those working in the field. I was privileged to spend several days in Durham with Mike in early June and he spoke fondly of his times in Australia and the raft of friends he had made, especially while visiting for our annual arts and health conferences. Our love and prayers are with his wife Catherine, son Jonah and daughter Ellie.

Margret Meagher
Director, The Australian Centre for Arts and Health

The following tributes from Clive Parkinson, Francois Matarasso, Naj Wikoff and Chris Mead tell much of the story of Mike White’s success as a compassionate, caring, gentle person, who possessed a sparkling intelligence, a mischievous sense of humour and an inspiring ability to write with impassioned eloquence. I have often publicly stated that, in my opinion, Mike White was the world leader in arts and community health. He was a mentor and dear, trusted friend to me and many others. If you would like to contribute your words about Mike for this page, please email Margret Meagher

For now, here is part of Mike White’s story.

A Tribute to Mike White from Clive Parkinson (UK)

Originally published here.

Friday, 5 June 2015   Mike White died yesterday. 

Mike had cancer and talked very openly about his experiences and treatment over this last year, and until the last few weeks, had kept a blog which shared some of his reflections and the gritty realities of living with cancer. If you haven’t read it, it’s compelling stuff.

I first met Mike when I worked for the NHS in Public Mental Health and was looking for ways to strategically embed the arts in my work across North Lancashire and Cumbria. I’d heard about him on the grapevine and was thrilled when he agreed to be part of a steering group, that I sat on, that was planning an arts and health conference in Carlisle in 2001. It seemed we were very different creatures, me all nervy and on the brink of histrionics and Mike - well - consistently calm, considered and so, so gentle. The conference was sold out and he was a great hit. Having been closely involved in the recent planning and completion of the Angel of the North in Gateshead, Mike had a certain mainstream arts cachet too!

Our second meeting was over in Dublin in 2004 shortly after I’d left the South West, where I’d been developing Arts for Health Cornwall, and was about to take up my position at MMU. This time, we met quietly and had time to discuss the growing international movement that we were part of and the characters that peppered it - some born of vision and committed to social change - and those shadowy figures, pursuing the market-driven dark-arts! He was candid and we enjoyed long conversations - his vast experience helping me navigate the fraught new arena that I was entering.

We met regularly and informally many times over the intervening years, but rather bizarrely, it was our time spent in Australia, as the guest of Margret Meagher, that cemented our friendship. In 2009 her first International Arts and Health Conference, some 10,500 miles away from the northern climes of England, brought Mike and I together in a way that we’d repeat almost annually up until last November. I have so many grand memories of his complete professionalism (what an ambassador for this field!) and his mischievousness - and his wonderful and always appropriate use of expletives! Walking back to hotels from conference venues, in the heat of day and the dead of night, became a regular thing for us.

Critical Mass 2011 Durham UniversityAs members of the National Alliance for Arts and Health we did meet on UK soil, but it was the intimacy of time in Australia and his regular Critical Mass events that really got us thinking and acting as a wider community of interest. Mike regularly brought people together and effortlessly facilitated conversations on small and large scales and his Critical Mass events brought people around the globe together to actively pursue inquiries and develop practice. From these extended conversations sprang global friendships and some serious collaborative work.

Only last year and in the middle of his cancer treatment, did Mike come over to MMU to give us a suitably mischievous - but completely serious presentation - which he called - Randomised Thoughts, Controlled Ramblings and a few Trialised Thoughts! Exhausted from his cross-Pennine foray to the Manchester School of Art, Mike blew us away and opened his presentation with a booming youtube film of Psycho Killer by the Talking Heads, conjoining his early work by way of Welfare State International to the possibilities of generating new traditions - and sharing a wonderful anecdote about meeting the woman he would marry - and her slightly tipsy rendition of Psycho Killer to a nightclub full of people. Mike couldn’t half tell a quirky story.

Imploring us to share something of the spiritus mundi, Mike framed much of his presentation in David Byrne’s ‘slow dawning insight about creation,’ that 'context is everything.' Urging us to consider Bevan’s collective commitment to social habits and offering the best we can give to society, he subverted the context of health and safety from authoritative and risk-averse control, to caring for each other. His own work illustrated perfectly how investing in children and young people reaps dividends in generational change, not least in creating young researchers who inform new ways of thinking, being and doing.

Author of the seminal work in arts and community health ..A Social Tonic, Mike remained committed to the principles of the Welfare State and a believer that creativity, culture and the arts were central to flourishing communities. His generosity imbued all he did with warmth, typified in those celebratory and conversational events he so often hosted.

Outside our community of arts/health, I often describe the positive working relationships that emerge from shared beliefs and vision, and how once a full moon, these spill over into real and deeper friendships. I’m proud to have had Mike’s friendship and wonder who I will look up to now? Always following in his footsteps, I will remember him as a man of superb intelligence - a knowledge born of experience - hysterically funny, warm and with the deepest integrity. A record-collector extraordinaire, a family man and a free-thinker. We will carry forward your ideas, but will miss your presence Mike White.

12 June   Lovely messages came in about Mike White this week and it was heartening to hear from so many people who had been in some small way, affected by him and his vision of equal, healthy and flourishing communities. A mutual friend of ours had a baby this week and there’s something so bloody good and right and natural about this, it just reminds me - everything continues

Clive Parkinson
Arts for Health
Manchester Metropolitan University

A Tribute to Mike White from François Matarasso (UK)

Previously published here

"The most potent contribution that this new field of arts practice can make is the revelation of just how creative community health can be."
Arts Development in Community Health, A Social Tonic, Mike White 2009

Mike White, who died at home yesterday after a long illness, was a pioneer in community-based arts and health. His ideas will continue to influence the field for many years. He was working an as arts officer for Gateshead Council when I met him. His imaginative, creative projects recognised the real difference that participation in the arts could make to people’s lives. Sometimes that was very concrete, as in the campaigns against heart disease, but more typically it was a subtle understanding of how wellbeing affects the experience of life and therefore its outcomes. Later he went on to work at Durham University, where he was central to the establishment of the Centre for Medical Humanities and where I was sometimes able to participate in the meetings of friends and collaborators he organised.

Mike’s vision was not therapeutic. It was rooted in a passion for social justice and a belief that everyone deserves the best that life can give. It was rooted too in his character and his spirit. He was a deeply kind and generous person who always had time to share with others. He was unassuming and resolutely unpretentious, always more interested in other people and the outcomes of the work than in recognition of his own contribution.

Mike White, ...A Social Tonic cover.jpgToday, his many friends in the UK, Australia and elsewhere will be deeply saddened by his passing. I salute a friend and fellow spirit with a heavy heart. But there is some comfort in knowing what he contributed and knowing too that the people who share his ideas and values will continue to work for healthier, creative communities in which more people can flourish and make the most of life.

If you want to know more about Mike, there are a couple of previous posts about his work on the Regular Marvels site: Angels and Chalkie’s Demon Diary. The second piece is about the all-too brief blog in which he wrote about his illness with characteristic elegance and humility. There’s an interview he gave online, and some of his papers here; other resources to be found with a search engine.

But the best understanding of Mike’s work can be found in his book, Arts Development in Community Health, A Social Tonic. It’s a good investment for anyone interested in community arts.

A Tribute to Mike White from Naj Wikoff (USA)

Mike White, a pioneer in the field of arts in health, has died after a two-year struggle with cancer. Mike’s great and lasting contribution to our field and society as a whole was through demonstrating and grounding the value of the arts in wellbeing over the whole arch of life.

Much great work had been done in both the UK and United States in the area of arts in health in hospitals, but Mike was the champion for the arts and health in community settings. When I first met him in the mid 1990s, he was working out of a library in Gateshead, England. The northeast of England was going through hard economic times with many mines closed or closing, many people living with severe health challenges as outcomes of the mining and its related industries, and in the midst of that was Mike getting people to make reed and tissue lanterns as part of using the arts to encourage people dance, walk, and sing their way to healthier living.

For Mike, well-being meant the mind, body, and spirit. To that end he championed and helped organize all manner of arts activities that taught people about safe sex, connected people of differing social and health status through walk-in community art centers, and helped people transition through life unto death. He was actively involved in using the arts to improve the economic wellbeing of his region, exemplified by Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North, and was a champion of using the arts to address issues of social justice.

Further, he measured their benefits way before many in the field did. He and his colleagues organized some of the first national arts in health conferences, all with a strong emphasis on community and individual wellness.

Mike’s shift to the University of Durham, UK where he was a Senior Research Fellow in Arts and Health at the Centre for Medical Humanities and St. Chad’s College, enabled him to dig deeper into understanding the benefits of the arts as well as expanding his collaborations with schools and universities, and working more on the world stage where he profoundly influenced the arts in health in Australia, Canada, the United States and elsewhere. His book Arts Development in Community Health: a social tonic is a must read for anyone with an interest in this field, a well-thumbed “bible” that I refer to time and time again.

Above all, Mike was a great friend – a person I just enjoyed. I loved his energy, his keen intelligence, his huge heart, his insights, and his sense of fun. He is one of those angels that will be with me, and with our field forever.

Naj Wikoff
Founder, Creative Healing Connections and Fulbright Senior Specialist (USA)

A Tribute from Chris Mead (Australia)

I’m not sure Mike would like the term of legend but the hat fits and we miss him already.

A little conscious of remaining courteous to the barrage of pushing bee liners is a memory from the 2010 Arts and Health Australia conference where Mike was generously absorbing the infectious enthusiasm he had stirred amongst delegates over tea. It was if we all had a story or three questions to ask and hoping he wouldn’t run out of copies of his book Arts Development in Community Health, A Social Tonic.

Mike writes in the closing of the books introduction, that he hoped what he had observed, learned and discussed in the field would “offer a route map of future connections”. He shapes his enquiry into “looking at how the multi-sector engagement with communities through the arts can establish a tonal centre that entrains a range of interventions to ‘sing from the same sheet’ as regards to community health development.”

His sharing of best practice, passion for creative collaborators and policy drivers impacts our work tremendously. Mike has offered a route map for future connections, a strengthening of voices and friendships where we share joint determination, curiosity and love for the work we do. We may be far flung from the “Angel of the North” but like others internationally, your arts in health “family” is tightly woven, celebrating your life and getting back to ‘arts is the business of health’… just as you would like.

VALE Mike White. Cheers from your Tassie daffodils.

Chris Mead
Creature Tales, Tasmania   creaturetales.com.au

A Tribute from Ed Carroll (Ireland)

Mike was a really important person for the Blue Drum Agency in Dublin, Ireland a decade ago in our research on community arts and well being. He helped us imagine ways in which community well being could grow from a grassroots movement inspired by community development. All our love to Mike's family.

Ed Carroll
Director, Blue Drum Agency


Mike White was Senior Research Fellow at St. Chad's College, University of Durham, UK and Adviser on Strategic Development for the Australian Centre for Arts and Health with regard to establishing an international network for both practitioners and researchers in arts and health.

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 became involved in arts in health work from 1988 when he set up the first arts in primary care project in the UK at Brierley Hill. Mike was also a co-founder of Welfare State International and Womad, the world music festival.

From 2000 until 2014, Mike was Research Fellow in Arts and Health at the Centre for Medical Humanities, working on a programme which included nurturing arts in health projects in schools and communities, workforce development programmes for creativity in healthcare, project-based evaluations, and audits and literature reviews of arts in health for Government agencies. Mike developed 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 explored the question "what makes for human flourishing?" In 2005, he 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 2011 Mike convened the first international 'critical mass' meeting to set up ongoing exchanges of research and practice. Mike received the Royal Society for Public Health Award 2011 for 'innovative and outstanding contribution to arts addressing health inequalities - practice and research'. Mike edited a special issue of the journal Arts & Health and, with Margret Meagher, a UNESCO Observatory E-journal - both of these publications, in 2013, focussed on international arts and health practice and research.

Prior to working at Durham University, Mike worked 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' sculpture by Antony Gormley.  Until his untimely death on 5 June, 2015, Mike ran an independent consultancy, Common Knowledge, with long-time artist colleague Mary Robson. Common Knowledge continues as a project management, learning development and programme advisory service for effective workforce training in arts in health, social pedagogy in schools, and international collaborations in practice and research.

A Spotted Hankie and the Open Road – and Arts in Health in Australia