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Arts organisations can transform lives - it's time their stories were told

We’ve all heard about how the arts can transform lives. Many have experienced these transformative effects - whether that is through an elderly relative starting a dance class or a friend learning to speak in public at a community theatre.

But there is relatively little evidence in this area: arts organisations don’t always have the time or skills to assess their impact. And this can make it difficult to make the case for funding or to discover which programmes work best.

Community Music

Credit: Community Music

This dilemma is one of the drivers of Nesta’s pioneering Arts Impact Fund, a £7m social impact investment fund for arts and culture organisations in England, supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Arts Council England and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.

In addition to providing affordable loans, this fund aims to grow the social impact capabilities of the sector. So, when earlier this year the House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMSC) launched an inquiry into how taking part in the arts, culture and sport can have a positive impact on health, community and education outcomes, we felt that Nesta was well-placed to comment. You can read the full submission online.

Since 2015, the Arts Impact Fund has made over 20 investments to arts and culture organisations delivering positive social change in their communities. Not only has the fund been testing the idea that there is demand for repayable finance in the sector (and the ability to repay it!), but it has also looked for social returns, challenging its investees to demonstrate how they make the world a better place.

Our evidence submission to the DCMSC inquiry includes the following examples from the Arts Impact Fund portfolio:

  • How South East Dance has been involved in delivering an evidence based falls prevention programme through the medium of dance to older people, and in doing so, enhancing their physical wellbeing
  • The work of Community Music in delivering music education to young people - particularly those at risk of becoming not in education, employment or training - thereby increasing their employability and life skills
  • How Bow Arts Trust supports primary and secondary schools with their arts education programmes, helping young people to deepen their artistic skills and gain Arts Award qualifications
  • Through its annual Parks Festival, the community-building work of Soho Theatre in the London Borough of Waltham Forest and how that contributes to placemaking and improved health & wellbeing

We also make the case that government can improve access to, and diversity in, cultural professions through:

  • Facilitating the connection of arts and cultural organisations with public and third sector bodies such as schools, housing associations and Clinical Commissioning Groups, so that they can reach particular communities of need
  • Promoting and developing a more diverse funding toolkit for the sector, including both unrestricted funding and social investment, so that arts organisations have the financial resilience and flexibility to do what they know best
  • The provision of more resources for training and personal development, ensuring the nurturing of talent and its retention

Arts organisations, their stakeholders and their champions, need to get better at telling the stories of how their work transforms our lives, communities and culture - the very fabric of civilisation itself. All too often we hear stories of cuts to arts funding and greater competition for the funds that remain. But what about the story of how mosaic art can improve the public realm whilst providing an alternative to custody for young offenders? Or how ballet can unlock dancing talent in people with severe learning disabilities? These are important stories to be told and we - the artists, funders, connectors and campaigners - need to seize the narrative.

Author

Seva Phillips

Seva Phillips

Seva Phillips

Head of Arts & Culture Finance

Seva is responsible for Nesta's social impact investment work in the arts, culture and creative industries

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