What community arts interventions can do for you

By John Coburn - on 16/06/2015

HACT's Head of Community Investment John Coburn blog following our recent event discussing tenant accessibility to arts and culture projects and the role housing providers can play.

Housing associations invest significant resources (circa £750m) in community investment activity and that includes projects helping getting people into work, learning and skills, health and wellbeing and fuel poverty projects, to name but a few.  However very little resource is directed to arts and cultural interventions even though these could play a significant role in raising social housing residents’ wellbeing and aspirations.  Crucially arts and culture should not just be the preserve of the elite, but should be open and accessible to all including those in social housing.

NEF and HACT recently facilitated a conversation between housing and arts organisations to see how they can collaborate more successfully in the future.  The meeting came about thanks to the Cultural Commissioning Programme (CCP), a 3 years Arts Council England programme, that aims to help the arts and cultural sector develop skills and capacity to engage in cultural commissioning, and to enable people who plan and commission support, like housing associations, to develop awareness and know-how of commissioning arts and cultural organisations to deliver outcomes.

The CCP has demonstrated the value that arts and cultural programmes bring in delivering better places to live, improving health and wellbeing, and building up life skills.  And many different groups are supported through such interventions including children, younger people, older people and people with disabilities.  An example of a success is Sing for Your Life, which is a music based programme delivered in Kent which has achieved a range of positive outcomes in improving participants’ mental health.  But what, if any, examples are there in housing?

A great example of a housing association who deliver a number of successful arts programmes is Bolton at Home with their ‘Percent for Art’ team.  The unique offer includes 4 Arts Officers who are located in their neighbourhoods; and they deliver projects in different mediums including visual arts, performance, music, crafts, digital art and film.  The Big Digital Project, is a recent example of the great work they do, which involved Breightmet’s Mr One Million group working with local film training and production company thebox.tv CIC to design and stage their own light show.  They also have strategic partnership with the local Octagon Theatre, which gives their residents the ability to see productions.

Again from the North West we also learnt about New Charter’s innovative three year partnership in Ashton-under-Lyne that brought together the housing association, the local Academy and the Royal Exchange Theatre in a series of creative projects and explored ways of creating sustainable cultural change in the neighbourhood.  The partnership culminated in September 2014 with EVERYDAY HEROES – an outdoor community performance on the streets of Ashton-under-Lyne. The piece, performed by community members, took an audience of local residents on an evening storytelling walk which told the stories of Ashton’s ‘everyday heroes’ and focused on the small acts of kindness that often go unnoticed in our communities.

Whilst these projects show the potential of what can happen when the housing and arts worlds’ meet, there are still challenges to take this work to the next level.  The value of such projects need to be demonstrated and publicised; there has to be a willingness to partner and take risks; there has to be adequate funding; and help for smaller organisations trying navigate procurement rules.  The opportunities are significant in terms of tackling major health challenges such as dementia, mental health and obesity; and meeting the needs of older people through supporting independence and tackling loneliness; and addressing real issues such as domestic violence.

So community investment professionals, you can see what a difference community arts projects can make, the challenge for you is to make it happen!

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