On Tuesday evening Daniel, Cassandra and I were at Toynbee Hall in London for the #wellMAKING Craftivists Garden event. This project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities programme, set out to show how craft activities can help improve wellbeing by involving participants in the fun, connected, sensory and mindful process of making things. People across the UK were invited to join in and hand-embroider, knit or crochet a flower for the #wellMAKING Craftivists Garden, while reflecting on the importance of wellbeing and what we need in order to flourish as individuals and as a society. The #wellMAKING Craftivists Garden UK project is a partnership between the Craftivist Collective, Falmouth University, Voluntary Arts and Arts for Health Cornwall & Isles of Scilly. See: www.craftivist-collective.com/wellMAKING
Fiona Hackney from Falmouth University said that 750 flowers had been made as part of the project and the activity seemed to have proved very meaningful for people from all parts of the UK. 40 volunteer facilitators had run #wellMAKING groups to “craft, connect, reflect, challenge and grow”, realising the value of making together. The project had encouraged “quiet activism”. Daniel described how our Hand on Crafts project had demonstrated profound wellbeing benefits for those taking part and encouraged everyone to get involved in Craftbomb and Woollen Woods as part of Voluntary Arts Week 2015 (see: http://www.voluntaryartsweek.org).
Jayne Howard, Director of Arts for Health Cornwall & Isles of Scilly said something different happens when people engage in crafts. This is an under-researched area. She spoke about a programme of work with GP surgeries which had showed that crafts practice seemed to help participants bond more quickly. It generated talk, the pace was quite gentle, there were periods of silence but they never felt uncomfortable. The activity provided an opportunity to demonstrate achievement and produced something tangible to take home or give as a gift. Sarah Desmarais, AHRC Research Fellow at Falmouth University, had acted as a participant observer in two groups. She reported that the activities had allowed participants to safely access social companionship. She spoke abut the power of playfulness to give a creative state of mind. Playfulness can be relearned and craft can be very useful in this. Participants become progressively more confident.
Sarah Corbett from the Craftivist Collective, spoke about “activism through needlework”, challenging and trying to change social structures that are preventing people achieving their potential. The World Health Organisation defines wellbeing as:
* Realising our potential
* Coping with daily stress
* Contributing productively to society
Sarah said crafting helps with all three aspects of wellbeing. She said “craft slows me down and makes me think”.
The #wellMAKING Craftivists Garden was a fascinating event. It was wonderful to hear about the experiences of participants, brilliant to see the flowers displayed and lovely to be at an event at which many of the audience were actually stitching and knitting throughout the speeches.
On Wednesday I was at Christiansborg, the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen, to give a keynote speech in the Amatørkultur conference. This one-day event, organised by AKKS (the Danish equivalent of Voluntary Arts) and DATS (the Danish amateur theatre association) aimed to encourage the development of a new national cultural policy for the amateur arts in Denmark. I was one of three foreign speakers (the others being from Belgium and Norway) invited to open the conference. We addressed an audience of around 100 local and national politicians, civil servants and representatives of amateur arts organisations in the splendid Faellessalen room at Christiansborg. I spoke about the gradual moves towards re-integrating the amateur arts into national cultural policy in England that we have seen over the past ten years. I talked about our work on the Participation Manifesto, the Our Creative Talent research, our development of the Up for Arts model, the RSC Open Stages project, Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places programme and the current opportunities presented by the BBC Get Creative campaign.
The second conference session involved a panel of people with responsibility for culture within five local authorities from across Denmark. The panel included a mixture of officers and elected councillors. Among the opinions expressed were the thoughts that “the amateur arts is about enthusiasm – don’t think of it as a means to achieve something else, such as health” and “culture is seen as for the elite: the amateur arts can help transform this”.
The final session of the day was a discussion between the Danish Culture Minister, Marianne Jelved, and the culture spokespersons from most of the other national political parties. The Minister spoke about the use of lottery funding in Denmark, bemoaning the fact that, over the years, politicians have decided that lottery funding should be used to support the running costs of cultural institutions so there is now only 10% of this funding left for more experimental activity. She said “a national strategy has to inspire not restrict” and suggested that there is a lot of artistic talent in Denmark that is not developed. Marianne Jelved finished by saying “when you talk about the meaning of life, talk about arts. Art has a special language.”
On Thursday I was in London to take part in a meeting of the Arts & Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities Programme Advisory Group. We heard from Bryony Enright and Keri Facer who have been developing, over the past twelve months, a narrative and evidence base about the Connected Communities programme’s impact. Connected Communities has, to date, funded 300 projects, involving 900 partnerships and encouraging substantial number of academics and universities to undertake collaborative research with communities. Bryony said that the community organisations involved in the Connected Communities research projects had reported a range of benefits, including new relationships, increased credibility, greater recognition for existing work, ownership and control of research projects, access to networks, opportunities for personal development, opportunities for reflection and creating new communities.
We then had presentations from two Connected Communities projects. Professor Ian Hargreaves (Professor of Digital Economy at the University of Cardiff – and a former editor of The Independent and the New Statesman) described the Creative Citizens project which addressed the question: “How does creative citizenship generate value for communities within a changing media landscape and how can pursuit of value be intensified, propagated and sustained?”. The project looked at three particular areas of practice: community journalism (‘hyperlocal’ news media); community-led design; and creative networks. Ian said “the activities of creative citizens have considerable and growing value – statisticians and politicians please note” and he stressed the importance of developing “a civic life that is more magical and wonderful to be a part of”. See: http://creativecitizens.co.uk/
We also heard from Dr Gill Windle of Bangor University about the Dementia and Imagination project. This project explored how the vision for dementia supportive communities might benefit from creative activities (particularly socially engaged visual arts practice). The project created a handbook (“interaction: engagement”) on the use of visual art with people with dementia and a legacy of professional development and increasing expertise in dementia for a range of artists and community arts organisations. See: http://dementiaandimagination.org.uk/