Creativity & Wellbeing Week 2021 – a conversation with Jenni Regan from London Arts and Health
Jenni Regan is CEO of London Arts and Health and curates the annual Creativity & Wellbeing Week festival. We spoke to her about the week and why she believes creativity is important for health and well-being – for us as individuals and for society at large.
“Art is for everyone and a fantastic disease prevention measure.”
Can you tell us a bit about Creativity & Wellbeing Week – who it is for, what its purpose is, who is involved?
The week of creativity and well-being (May 17-23, 2021) is taking place for the 11th time this year. It started as a small festival for the arts and healthcare sectors and has grown into a British celebration of the power of creativity for well-being. It showcases many brilliant organizations and artists and offers the public a chance to try creative activities. The festival is hosted by London Arts and Health and the Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance came on board in 2019 to host the festival across the UK.
Can you tell us about London Arts and Health?
The charity started out as a small membership organization. We are still committed to our members who are primarily arts and health practitioners but are now an Arts Council National Portfolio Organization and the leading charity supporting the sector in London. We champion arts and health, partner with policymakers and bridge the gap between the arts and health worlds. We have worked over the past year to expand the resources we offer and have developed a range of digital tools to support our members. The corona pandemic was incredibly tough for many of them.
Why do you think Creativity & Wellbeing Week is important?
First and foremost it is an opportunity to shine a spotlight on arts and health and highlight some of the fantastic work being done across the UK. It’s a great leveler, putting grassroots organizations on the same stage as the larger, better-funded cultural institutions. The benefits of creativity for well-being are not yet as well known as factors like exercise and healthy eating, and we want everyone to be able to experience what it can do for healthier, longer lives.
We know that those who encounter obstacles in accessing arts and culture are often the very ones who would benefit greatly. You don’t have to be a ‘creative’ person to benefit from participation, and you don’t have to have an illness or disability. Art is for everyone and a fantastic preventive measure against diseases.
How is creativity related to well-being?
In recent years there has been a growing understanding of the impact that creative or cultural activities can have on health and well-being. Accessing arts and culture – and generally working with our own creativity and imagination – can improve our health when we have been diagnosed with mental or physical health problems. But it’s also good for our health and well-being in general, as well as the health of our communities and society.
The arts can reduce stress and increase social engagement as well as provide opportunities for self-expression. Many describe it as a mindful experience or an escape from everyday life. It’s not just about the activity: people tell us that taking part fights loneliness and isolation. Participating in creative activities can also help us better understand our emotions and the world around us, and encourage us to build our own narrative.
What does creativity mean to you personally? Has it had a particular impact on you and your well-being?
I’m a bit of a convert! I always thought art wasn’t “for me”. After all, I got through as a straight-A student with an E in my GCSE art. But of course, creativity isn’t about being “good” or painting masterpieces. My creative passion is writing, I write fiction and besides publishing a few books I now use writing for my own wellbeing and try to write something on a daily basis.
Are you currently involved in any personal creative projects that you are looking forward to?
I’m writing the second draft of my latest book, which has clearly been influenced by my job! I usually write thrillers, but this one turned out to be a heartwarming story where nobody dies. It’s also about an abandoned asylum and the discovery of an outsider art collection in the basement.
I’ve also been conducting Writing for Wellbeing sessions for the past few months. I have volunteered to support asylum seekers in London over the past year and these sessions include some asylum seekers and people from my area. The way we all view topics like travel and friendship is so different and we all learn from each other. This has become my regular way of getting away for a bit as I am a full participant.
How do you think the pandemic has affected people’s attitudes towards art and creativity?
It’s really interesting how people have naturally turned to creativity during the pandemic, especially during full lockdown when people have been told not to leave their homes. With all the usual coping strategies like exercise and nature suddenly unavailable to people, we saw them taking online drawing classes, observing lockdown choirs and culture from the sofa.
For many, lockdown has made it easier to get involved in creativity. Those who find it difficult to leave home were able to participate from the comfort of their own homes. Of course, the pandemic has also highlighted the digital divide. Cultural organizations have responded by offering physical creativity packages to some sections of society.
Do you have the feeling that art and creativity are given enough space in our culture? Is there enough fighting for this?
Definitely not. This is made clear by the recent government proposal to halve the funds for artistic subjects in further education. We have also seen an ongoing decline in the arts offering in secondary schools.
We know that arts subjects are not just a ‘nice’ addition to the curriculum, they encourage self-expression and creativity and can build self-confidence and a sense of individual identity. Studying the arts subjects also helps develop critical thinking and the ability to interpret the world around us.
In 2019 the arts and culture industry grew by £390m and was worth £10.8bn a year to the UK economy. Of course, the corona pandemic is having a catastrophic impact on it, and it is even more important that we invest in the next generation. We also have a big problem of diversity in the arts and health sectors. If children from privileged backgrounds are the only ones who receive an arts education, it is unlikely that we will ever see a cultural level playing field.
What could be done to improve this?
Invest in art! But the cultural sector also has a role to play in spreading the word about our work and reaching the next generation, creating opportunities and making the arts – and especially the arts in healthcare – a viable career choice. As a charity, we are working to do this. There is some hope with the growing popularity of “social prescribing,” where activity is prescribed in place of or alongside conventional medicine.
“We know that arts subjects are not just a ‘beautiful’ addition to the curriculum, they encourage self-expression and creativity and can build self-confidence and a sense of individual identity. Studying the arts subjects also helps develop critical thinking and the ability to interpret the world around us.”
Social prescribing has been promoted by both the Department of Health and NHS England in its long-term plan. Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock spoke at the King’s Fund in November 2018 on culture and creativity in relation to welfare prescribing. He said, “The arts can help us stay healthy, support our recovery, and support longer, better-lived lives.”
However, many social planners have traditionally focused on basic needs such as housing and finances. This is changing as there is a growing recognition that engaging in creative activities enhances health and well-being to the point that meeting basic needs is more manageable for the patient. As a charity we have championed cultural social prescribers and are beginning to see social prescribers attempting to add arts and culture activities to their offerings.
What do you think of Create’s work?
I was fortunate to attend a Create writing workshop run for people with dementia which was brilliant. It’s really inspiring to see a charity working with so many different art forms and with so many different users. I think Create has done so much to make arts and health more mainstream nationally, which has benefited smaller organizations.
My favorite project that many should emulate is creative:connection, which brings together disabled and able-bodied young people to work with professional artists. I have worked through previous roles and current trustee roles to break down the stigma in mental health and for the refugee community and the key is always bringing people together to share stories and experiences.
I think the idea of nurturing new artistic talent, which is an important initiative for Create, is also key to nurturing arts and culture in the future. Again, this is something that more organizations should strive for.
Visit the Creativity and Wellbeing Week website