Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt : Exploring the Long-Term Relationship between Cultural Engagement and Health

May, 2014

There is ample evidence that engagement in cultural activities – across the art forms – has a beneficial effect upon both physical and psychological health. But most of the evidence deals with relatively short-term engagement, over the lifespan of a finite project or a randomised controlled trial, perhaps. This project – based within the strategic agency, Arts for Health, at Manchester Metropolitan University – considers how we might explore this relationship in the longer term.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Nordic countries – with both the inclination and resources to explore this connection – are leading the field. In the early 1990s, a Swedish team revisited a cohort of 12,982 people who had taken part in a survey in 1982–3 which included questions about cultural engagement. They found that 533 men and 314 women had died during the intervening years and that, after adjusting for a range of demographic and lifestyle factors, cultural engagement seemed to increase survival chances. This landmark study, which was published in the British Medical Journal and repeated five years later with the same results, tentatively indicated possible areas of future research and was taken up by research teams throughout the Nordic region. Teams in Finland have substantiated the link between cultural participation and survival in large population samples, specifically in relation to external causes of mortality such as accidents and suicide. In the Norwegian county of Nord-Trøndelag, where biological samples and lifestyle data have been collected since the mid-1980s, questions about cultural engagement were introduced into the latest round of surveys (2006–8). This population-wide databank holds the potential for elucidating longitudinal connections between cultural engagement, self-reported health and the body’s physical and chemical properties.

Participation in the Cultural Value Project has enabled meetings with many of the esteemed researchers in this area of research, facilitating consultations in the Nordic countries about the work that has been done to date and the methodological challenges that remain in the future. At the same time, discussions have been undertaken with those at the forefront of similar research in the UK, from statisticians at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, responsible for interpretations of the Taking Part survey of arts participation, to representatives of arts and health organisations who actualise the relationship between arts participation and health on a daily basis.

Viewed from its midpoint, this project raises as many questions as it answers, not least in relation to why cultural engagement might have a beneficial impact upon health and life expectancy. Various explanations have been offered, ranging from alterations in brain morphology to better functioning of biological regulatory systems to increased social capital to epigenetic phenomena. The next three months will be spent trying to unravel this connection while paying close attention to the distinction between passive attendance at cultural events and active participation in arts activities.

You find out more about our project on the blog.

Nick Ewbank – Cultural Value and Social Capital: Investigating Social, Health and Wellbeing Impacts in Three Coastal Towns Undergoing Culture-led Regeneration

For our contribution to the Cultural Value project, the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health and cultural regeneration consultancy Nick Ewbank Associates carried out research in three coastal towns where there has been significant investment in culture-led regeneration in recent years, focusing on the impacts of Turner Contemporary in Margate, the Creative Foundation in Folkestone and the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea.

We adopted a mixed-methods participatory action research approach, using mind-mapping, vox pops and focus group discussions with around 300 public participants. We also carried our sixteen in-depth interviews with politicians, cultural leaders, academics, funders and public health experts.

The resulting report, ‘Cultural Value and Social Capital’, found that, despite an intuitive feeling that there is a “connection between cultural activity and feeling good”, health and wellbeing is not currently prioritised as a driver of either programming or outcomes. 

The three organisations were found to make a “significant, but at present largely undefined, contribution to social capital and to delivering health and wellbeing in their respective communities”, but outside the specialist field of arts in health practice “this important aspect of cultural value is currently hidden”. 

Des Crilley, Chair of Kent County Council’s Strategic Group for Arts in Kent, is quoted in the report as saying: “I don’t think arts and cultural organisations are able to define the impact they are able to make. They don’t trace it and make it visible. It drives me mad! They change someone’s life and they don’t even realise.”


Report Lauch, 16 July 2014. Panel members (Left to Right) Prof Stephen Clift, Helen Goodman MP, Deborah Bull, Sir Peter Bazalgette

Photo Stephanie Mills

Photo Stephanie Mills

We launched the report at a reception at the House of Commons on 16 July 2014. This event included a panel discussion with Prof Stephen Clift (Principal Investigator), Deborah Bull (Culture at King’s, Warwick Commission and AHRC Board), Sir Peter Bazalgette (Chair of Arts Council England) and Helen Goodman MP (Shadow Culture Minister). During the debate Sir Peter said “Fifty percent of local authorities are considering deploying health budget in the arts … it’s about the intrinsic value of the arts first, but to blind yourself to what the [economic and health] benefits are is ludicrous”.


Both Sir Peter and Helen Goodman MP, used the event to call for the health and social benefits of the arts to be systematised, with appropriate funding and measurement tools put in place.

Deborah Bull called for a “progressive research agenda” able to take the long view and not driven by the calls of different “flip-flopping” governments. She added that this will require the higher education sector and the research community to work very closely with the cultural sector.

The report proposes the introduction of guidelines with models of best practice, an idea supported by the three organisations involved in the project, who also said they would “welcome the introduction of simple-to-use evaluation tools that might shed light on levels of wellbeing generated by their everyday activities”. The report also suggests that cultural organisations should do more research into barriers to public engagement with their work, and give more consideration to programming and commissions aimed at “addressing specific health and social issues”.

Both the report and a short film of the House of Commons launch event can be viewed at

Or at

Pat Thomson – A critical review of the Creative Partnerships archive: How was cultural value understood, researched and evidenced?

What can the Creative Partnerships archive tell us about cultural value?

Creative Partnerships (CP) was the biggest and longest running arts and education intervention in the world. CP aimed to transform students’ experiences of schooling, expand teachers’ classroom approaches and dramatically improve the ways in which schools functioned and performed. Its focus was on ‘creative learning’ and whole school change. CP operated in England from 2002-2011 and worked intensively with over 2,700 schools, 90,000 teachers and over 1 million young people. It touched 1 in 4 schools in the country, and over 6,500 national arts and creativity organisations were involved in CP. Because 70% of the funding went to support creative practitioners, Price Waterhouse Coopers estimated that each CP£1 generated £15.3 of economic value.

CP understood itself as making a cultural offer. It supported teachers and young people in extended cultural experiences – working on a project with an artist (for example a dancer, sculptor, film-maker, story-maker) or a company (from the Royal Shakespeare Company to a local community arts organization) or a public institution such as a gallery, library or museum.

It was presumed that through these projects young people would both learn creatively and learn to be creative. Within CP there were strongly held views that the cultural offer supported children and young people to develop imagination, critical and reflective thinking, leadership, confidence and motivation, wellbeing and a strong sense of responsible empowerment.They were thus able to learn successfully, act as good citizens in their schools and communities and were prepared for 21st century life work and life (Thomson, Jones, & Hall, 2009).

While the aims of CP were not to produce cultural value per se, many of its explanations of creative learning overlap with the AHRC framework. For example, CP staff and texts always talked of the importance of reflection – “the ability to question, make connections, innovate, problem solve and reflect critically” – and citizenship -“imagine how the world could be different and have the confidence and motivation to make positive change happen”.

CP produced an enormous range of artefacts, ranging from literature reviews, research reports, publicity and promotional materials, demonstrations in the form of films and posters, to the annual plans and evaluation reports that each funded school had to submit. To date there has been no analysis of this material to assess what understandings it might have to offer. The archive, now housed at The University of Nottingham, has the potential to contribute further to international understandings about creativity, culture, reform, learning and organizational change.

Our project will systematically examine, for the first time, the CP archive in order to see what its literature reviews, research reports and annual plans and evaluation reports might have to offer the AHRC cultural value rubric. As its considerable body of research used highly diverse approaches, this project will use an interpretative approach to critically assess a range of key texts. The project will investigate and document how a cultural experience was understood, and what methodologies and methods were used to investigate CP’s cultural offer and the cultural experience of teachers and young people, and will show what kind of data the various approaches produced. On this basis, the project will then offer an assessment of the value of particular kinds of research methodologies and methods, and identity any areas for possible further investigation. It will also offer a synthesis of the various ways in which cultural experience was theorised.

We have begun by scoping the 150 plus commissioned research reports, focusing on the question of well-being. We can already see that this has been defined in different ways by researchers – for example it is taken as synonymous with general health, being the same as resilience, as an economic benefit, as a meaningful subjective evaluation, as a necessary component of a ‘good’ social life and as an end point in itself. Our plan is to write about our interpretations of the research material in a short summary paper then go on to other parts of the AHRC framework. When we finish with these research texts, there is still a very considerable digital archive to tackle!

Professor Pat Thomson (PI) and Dr Jan Keane, (research fellow), School of Education, The University of Nottingham

Thomson, P., Jones, K., & Hall, C. (2009). Creative whole school change. Final report. London: Creativity, Culture and Education; Arts Council England. See also

Pat is also the PI on a Research Development Award funded by the Cultural Value Project entitled: ‘The experience and value of live art: what can making and editing film tell us?’ You can read about it here:

Michael Eades: Bloomsbury Festival in a Box – Engaging Socially Isolated People with Dementia

Dementia has been in the news in a big way over the past week. Tuesday the 11th of December saw the first ever G8 Dementia Summit opening in London, with a headline grabbing promise from David Cameron to double funding for dementia research by 2025. This follows similar promises of urgent action on dementia put forward last year in the Prime Minister’s Challenge on Dementia, which in fact promises (rather more generously) to ‘[m]ore than double […] overall funding for dementia research to over 66m by 2015’.

Dementia, its treatment, prevention, and (one day, we might hope) ‘cure’, has shot up the national agenda over the last few years. In the process, a discourse has developed around the topic which—as is so often the case with discussions of culture in the public sphere—has drawn upon largely economic measures of value. A language of costs, budgets, investments and returns has shaped the media headlines over the past week, matching the immensity of the social ‘problem’ of dementia with talk of eye-wateringly (and eye-catchingly) huge sums of money.

As part of the Cultural Value Project, our research has a stake in these discourses. From July onwards we have been working on an initiative entitled ‘Bloomsbury Festival in a Box: engaging socially isolated people with dementia’. On a basic level, this project aims to take a peripatetic version of the Bloomsbury Festival—a community focussed arts festival in the heart of London—out to local residents unable to leave their homes and engage with it directly. Specifically, we have been working closely with Age UK Camden’s Dementia Befriending Service, and with the Faculty of Brain Sciences at University College London, to develop and analyse a cultural outreach for those living with dementia.

The idea here is to offer a chance for such people to engage not just in the reception, but in the collaborative creation of cultural experience. Working with Age UK Camden, and with a pool of Bloomsbury Festival artists, we have initiated a programme of weekly visits that take a number of specially designed Festival Boxes out to people’s homes. Each weekly visit comprises a short cultural activity designed to prompt reminiscence—singing, painting, ceramics work, a poetry recital or writing workshop—followed by a short narrative interview reflecting on the experience. Visits are audio-recorded, and a quantitative single-question happiness measure is also taken at the beginning and close of each session. All artists and researchers also keep research journals reflecting on their experience.

Over the course of the project, each of these Festival Boxes has developed into a unique cultural experience. They have become a personalised ‘archive of engagement’ for each participant, and this has allowed us to respond sensitively to the participants’ needs, and to focus on what Tom Kitwood (1997) has famously described as ‘the personhood of people with dementia’. The Festival in a Box project has therefore developed opportunities for reminiscence and narrative storytelling, but also offered an opportunity for analysing the core value of cultural experience itself. By working with participants who, as a result of their memory loss, tend to experience cultural engagement ‘in the moment’, within a disordered narrative present, we have been able to gather valuable material on the affective experience of culture amongst a traditionally ‘hard to reach’ population.

The project is now moving towards its concluding stages, in which the transcribed data gathered from our visits will be analysed via a series of close textual readings across our research team. As well as offering valuable research data, this project will also provide an opportunity for reflecting upon the ‘value’ of socially isolated people within a ‘cultural’ context. It will provide a means through which—we hope—to reintegrate the stories of those living with dementia into the broader narrative of the Bloomsbury Festival, of Camden, and of London itself.

Reflections on the course of the research so far can be found on the dedicated project blog:

Cath Lambert: The value of live art: experience, politics and affect

The Value of Live Art?

At mac birmingham, a popular arts complex just south of Birmingham City Centre, recent visitors could not help but see at least some of artist Brian Lobel’s public exhibition Fun with Cancer Patients (exhibited 12 September – 6 October as part of Fierce Festival). The title, bold in black on white, was visible from the busy café, and evoked curiosity, concern, disapproval and a whole host of other different emotions and responses that led many people to explore the exhibition in more depth. The exhibition documented six creative ‘actions’ based on the ideas and experiences of a group of teenaged cancer patients who have been working with Brian Lobel over a number of months. My research, ‘The Value of Live Art: Experience, Politics and Affect’ has been embedded in the Fun with Cancer Patients art project in order to try to access, explore and understand the cultural, political, social and emotional work live art can do. The value of the artistic experiences and outputs to the teenagers and their families, to medical professionals and support workers, as well as to a wider public audience, is subject to critical examination using a mixed and at times experimental bag of ethnographic and ‘live’ methods (see Back and Puwar 2012). In order to research audience’s experiences of the exhibition, this took the form of a ‘live art hub’ alongside the installation space. From this physical space we observed, chatted, listened, carried out interviews, ran workshops, and gathered responses articulated in writing, speech, gesture, image or a combination of forms. The hub was a ‘space of affect’ where long conversations and brief, speechless encounters alike were articulated and documented as sociological research.

In the introductory text for the exhibition Brian Lobel writes, ‘Instead of asking for your sympathy or pity, Fun with Cancer Patients asks for your intellectual and critical engagement around cancer’. The documentation challenges audiences to listen, watch, read or feel what the young cancer patients themselves have to communicate about their experiences of being stared at, becoming disabled, having chemo, having a hickman line hanging from their body, losing hair, losing friends, making friends, being asked endless questions, eating hospital food, facing death, having fun. These opinions and experiences may or may not resonate with visitors, many of whom have cancer stories of their own. The research has involved a good deal of story-telling and a lot of listening. I have felt keenly that sociology is, as Les Back (2007) puts it, ‘ the art of listening’. One of my hopes for the research hub is that the data it has generated will acknowledge and amplify the ‘intellectual and critical engagement around cancer’ that Brian called for whilst also perhaps helping us to understand some of the challenges around such engagements.

Sociologists do not often attend to live art, but live art is becoming more mainstream, more talked about, and increasingly likely to touch the lives of ‘ordinary’ people, even those who do not seek it out. I have a hunch that there may be something special about some live art practices, making them incredibly valuable as a mechanism for social and political change. Of course the materials of live art are simply the materials of life: bodies, emotions, objects, social and material relations, conversations, stories, memories and so on. What may put live art in a powerful position is its ability to generate aesthetic experiences from these materials, to re/order them in such a way as to create what Jacques Rancière (2004) refers to as a ‘redistribution of the sensible’, shifting the usual ordering of the sensory world we inhabit so that we may see, hear, feel, acknowledge and understand different things, and that different people and their knowledges can in turn be seen, heard, acknowledged and understood.

Helen Rees Leahy: Learning from the Past

“Art is not only a useful thing… but is, certainly for all dwellers in large towns, a necessary for health. Neither the community nor the individual, who is not affected by the influence of Art, can possibly live a full healthy life in a modern town.”

Thomas Coglan Horsfall, The Need for Art in Manchester, 1910

From the perspective of 2013, Thomas Coglan Horsfall’s 1910 prescription of a regular dose of art for the inhabitants of Manchester sounds remarkably prescient. Today, the idea that access to the visual arts can deliver diverse benefits, beyond aesthetic enjoyment alone, to both the individual and their community is established orthodoxy among cultural practitioners and policy-makers. Indeed, the quest to produce evidence of the social, developmental and therapeutic value of cultural participation drives much of the current academic and institutional research into the production of cultural value.

A century ago, Horsfall needed no such research outcomes to make his case. Instead he relied on the ‘evidence’ of his own remarkable experiment of putting into practice the ideas of his mentor, John Ruskin, on the capacity of art to promote both social reform and spiritual well being: namely, the creation of Manchester Art Museum. Horsfall’s Museum opened in Ancoats, one of the poorest areas of the city, in 1886 and contained rooms dedicated to painting, sculpture, architecture and domestic arts. The educational purpose of the enterprise was manifest in the detailed notes, labels, pamphlets and guided tours that explained the artworks to visitors, especially children.Innovations included free concerts, lectures and other entertainments on weekday evenings and Sunday afternoons, all of which became extremely popular in the neighbourhood.

Reflecting on the success of the Museum, Horsfall argued that it clearly demonstrated that exposure to artworks was essential to ‘maintaining the mental and moral health of the inhabitants of large towns’(Horsfall, The Need for Art in Manchester, 1910. p.35). For Ruskin and Horsfall, it was self-evident that paintings could inspire religious faith and understanding through the depiction of the beauty of nature as well as biblical scenes. And this, of course, reveals a critical difference between Horsfall’s justification for investment in museums and galleries and our contemporary debate about cultural value.

Horsfall’s work – and its rhetorical and institutional legacies – frames many of the questions that we are researching in our cultural value project ‘Learning from the Past: Cultural Value, then and now, in principle and in practice.’ The project aim is to introduce historical breadth to contemporary questions of cultural value, by bringing historical sources into dialogue with contemporary practice and research. Specifically, we are investigating histories of museum and gallery practice in Horsfall’s ‘ugly town’ of Manchester (ibid. p.17).

So how do museums and galleries today understand and draw on the resources of their own histories in their practice today? One answer to that question is provided by the current exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, entitled ‘Art for All: Thomas Horsfall’s Gift to Manchester’. It’s a rare outing for some of the artworks from the Manchester Art Museum, now in the collection of Manchester Art Gallery, most of which are regarded as embarrassingly kitsch and/or lacking in artistic quality by today’s professional curators. Horsfall’s emphasis on personal development, education and inclusivity resonate with present practice, but his overtly religious agenda and aesthetic taste are less compatible with present notions of cultural value.