About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Where next for Arts and Health?

This week is Creativity and Wellbeing Week, a festival that started in London and has grown across the UK. It is a great opportunity to think about the longstanding relationship between two essential parts of our humanity and how the connection between them creates opportunities for innovation.

The historical connection between arts and health is long and strong. The Greek god of medicine Asklepios had five daughters including Hygieia (the goddess of health and cleanliness) and Panacea (the goddess of universal remedy) but also, Aegle (the goddess of beauty, splendour and adornment). Medieval monastic orders commissioned great artists to create works of art for the patients they nursed like the magnificent Issenheim altarpiece. People have sung and danced to benefit their health and wellbeing for centuries. The deep-rooted relationship between health and the expression of creativity is present across many cultures and is centuries old, so what place is there for innovation in this field?

People have sung and danced to benefit their health and wellbeing for centuries.

In the UK, the contemporary field of arts and health has emerged over the past 40 years. It has evolved as a grassroots movement of patients, artists and clinicians testing and embedding new ways of thinking about the relationship people have with their bodies, their minds and their wellbeing. This has been echoed further afield, usually in small projects, with individual artists and pioneering practitioners, what the writer Mike White referred to as a “small-scale global phenomenon”. The arts and health movement got where it is today not through top-down dictat but through grassroots engagement; advocacy founded in experience. Essentially, arts and health is a social movement.

Image of a stage with a chair in the centre and people looking on during a theatre production called The Return

Re-Live production of The Return. Photographer: Darren Britton

The publication in summer 2017 of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing report – Creative Health – was a landmark moment for the arts and health sector. It was built on the shoulders of significant evaluations and reviews of research – not least Rosalia Staricoff’s review of the medical literature in 2004 and her subsequent updating of this with Professor Stephen Clift in 2011. What the report did that was new was bring together the most up-to-date research into arts and health along with a cross-section of the very best in arts and health practice from across the country. By juxtaposing intellectual rigour with the knowledge of the best practice which the National Alliance for Arts Health and Wellbeing (now the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance) could provide, the report brought to light the opportunities for, and potential of, arts and health.

Best practice in arts and health is often about testing innovations - new ways of engaging people in their own health, rather than new devices to do it with. It’s about building agency and confidence in people’s recovery from illness and their ongoing wellbeing. However, too much arts in health practice exists without people really knowing why it works. And there is too much arts and health practice which simply doesn’t work and sucks up oxygen that could be spared for genuine innovation.

At times there has been a tendency for arts in health practice to start with a solution and then look for health problems to fit this to. This process is always bound to fail. When practitioners collaborate in a genuine, authentic and meaningful way with communities and clinicians (in hospitals, GP practices, schools, villages or cities) and are open to a range of creative approaches, that is when brilliant new approaches emerge.

Best practice in arts and health is often about testing innovations - new ways of engaging people in their own health, rather than new devices to do it with.

By asking the right questions of arts and health projects, we can properly test these innovations, establishing what works and learning what might be replicable elsewhere. As Nesta’s collaboration with the Arts Council of Wales and the Welsh NHS Confederation develops we are drawing on our collaboration with Cardiff University to enact this. The unique nature of Y Lab - a partnership between Nesta and Cardiff University - enables us to locate the research at the heart of the programme, asking questions as we go along.

We want to find out where innovation is possible, what needs to change, who arts in health can work for. We want to link excellent research to the best practice and test how the best creative practice can reach people who traditionally are not reached by mainstream arts (and often health) offers. We are looking forward to learning lots along the way about creativity, health and wellbeing!


Damian Hebron

Damian Hebron

Damian Hebron

Programme Manager, Social Health

Damian worked on Social Movements in Health as well as Nesta's Arts and Health work.

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