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A history of arts and health in Ireland

by Nicola Dunne

Over the last twenty-five years there has been increasing recognition internationally of the contribution the arts can make to the health, quality of life and social wellbeing of all in society and in particular to those in healthcare settings. Since the 1980s, arts programmes have opened in hundreds of hospitals, clinics and community centres across the world, and there has been an increase in government support for this work.

The Arts Council

Since the late 1990s, the Arts Council of Ireland has sought to advocate the value of the arts within healthcare and to support arts and health practice. In response to a growing number of proposals for arts and health projects, the Arts Council instituted a programme of work including the establishment of a Joint Steering Committee with the Eastern Health Board in 1998. This committee oversaw and evaluated five pilot arts projects throughout the Eastern Regional Health Authority, the findings of which were published in The Practice of Arts in Healthcare (2003).

In 2001, the Arts Council commissioned a study to map the levels of artistic activity taking place within healthcare settings. Mapping the Arts in Healthcare Contexts in the Republic of Ireland by Ruairi Ó Cuív and Leargas Consulting mapped 150 arts and health projects in existence in Ireland at that time. The research demonstrated that the level of activity was much higher than was generally perceived. The report also acknowledged that Local Authority Arts Officers were active in the field and almost one third of all projects were supported by a Local Authority.

Subsequent initiatives included the publication of the Arts and Health Handbook (2003) to address the need for best practice and the organisation of a two-day international arts and health conference in 2004. In Partnership for the Arts (2006–2008), the Arts Council outlined a number of priority areas including the need to support artists wishing to develop their practice and the need to build the support infrastructure for arts and health practice through the establishment of specialist resource services.

In 2008, the Arts Council appointed for the first time a Specialist Adviser on arts and health to assist with the development of an arts and health policy and strategy. This was followed by a period of consultation and research with the sector including in October 2009, Vital Signs, a series of strategic events including a conference, exhibition and commissioned opinion pieces. In December 2010, the Arts Council’s first Arts and Health Policy and Strategy was published outlining the values that underpin its approach to arts and health practice.

The Arts Council strategy, Making Great Art Work, sets out its plan for leading the development of the arts in Ireland from 2016-2025, prioritising the artist and public engagement, and outlining a range of actions which the agency will take to deliver on its vision.

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Health Service Executive

The Health Service Executive (HSE) has also made a number of pilot studies into the benefit of arts and health practice. The most notable publication is The Practice of the Arts in Healthcare, which as previously mentioned, was produced in partnership with the Arts Council in response to the growing worldwide movement of arts and health. The report was then adopted by the board of ERHA in November 2003.

An innovative partnership was one developed between the HSE Southern Area and Cork 2005 during the celebration of Cork as European Capital of Culture. A Culture + Health Strand was developed for the Cork 2005 programme during which thirty two projects were delivered in diverse community and health settings. Subsequently, HSE South established the Cork Arts and Health Programme (CAHP) and appointed an Arts and Health Co-ordinator, the first post of its kind to be created within the HSE.

At present, the HSE and the Arts Council are working together to explore the potential for a formal framework to support the development of arts and health practice in Ireland. The research is being undertaken within the context of the Healthy Ireland Framework (2013 – 2025), the Arts Council’s Arts and Health Policy (2010) and its new strategy Making Great Art Work, Leading the Development of the Arts in Ireland (2016 – 2025).

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Per Cent for Art Scheme

A significant development for arts and health in Ireland was the publication of Public Art: Per Cent for Art Scheme, General National Guidelines in 2004. These guidelines promote the implementation of the Per Cent for Art Scheme which in recent years has funded environmental enhancement in health settings and provided scope for artists to engage directly with staff, patients and visitors. The Scheme was updated in 2019 to increase funding for public art and artists. An inter-agency group has also been re-established to improve information gathering and collation and sharing of best practice on Per Cent for Art schemes.

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Over recent years a small number of national arts resource agencies have also undertaken aspects of the arts and health remit including research, training and networking. Create, the national development agency for collaborative arts in Ireland, managed the national consultation programme which informed the Arts Council’s Conference on arts and health in 2004 and for several years facilitated the network of professionals which became Arts and Health Co-ordinators Ireland. The agency continues to support the development of arts and health practice. This includes partnering with Waterford Healing Arts Trust (WHAT) on Check Up Check In, an annual arts and health gathering and networking event. In 2011, Create and WHAT jointly developed artsandhealth.ie, the national arts and health website, providing an online resource for the sector.

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Waterford Healing Arts Trust

Waterford Healing Arts Trust (WHAT) was established in 1993 following the suggestion by a local GP Dr. Abdul Bulbulia to introduce the visual arts to enhance the hospital environment in Waterford Regional Hospital (now University Hospital Waterford). The work of this project was to evolve into a model for arts and health practice in Ireland and WHAT is now recognised as a national arts and health resource organisation. The Trust has developed a multidisciplinary programme of arts activity and research. In 2008, working in partnership with HSE South, WHAT commissioned the development of best practice guidelines for participatory arts projects in healthcare contexts. In 2009, WHAT opened the first Arts and Health Centre in the Republic of Ireland.

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Arts and Health Coordinators Ireland

Arts and Health Coordinators Ireland (AHCI) is an all-Ireland support network of professionals who manage arts and health initiatives. Formed in 2003, AHCI works to build capacity in the sector and raise public awareness of arts and health.

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Support and training for artists working in this arena was a recurring theme of both the 2004 and 2009 conferences on arts and health. In 2008, in partnership with Adelaide and Meath National Children’s Hospital and IADT, Create delivered a Professional Development Modular Course for artists working or wishing to work in a healthcare setting. A Postgraduate Certificate in Arts in Healthcare Settings at NUI Maynooth delivered in association with the National Centre for Arts and Health at Tallaght University Hospital ran from 2010 to 2014. It was the first accredited course in arts and health in Ireland.

At present, Kids’ Classics (through their Training Notes programme) and Waterford Healing Arts Trust (via Healing Sounds) provide training for professional musicians interested in developing their practice in health settings. Since 2012, WHAT has led an annual Introduction to Arts and Health, a one-day workshop for healthcare professionals and arts practitioners.

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Local Authority Arts Officers

Prior to the publication of Partnership for the Arts in 2006, Local Authority Arts Officers had already started to include aspects of arts and health in their programme of work as a means of addressing greater participation in the arts. In 2007, Kildare County Council Arts Service appointed an Arts in Health Specialist, the first and to date, only appointment of its kind in the Republic of Ireland. In some counties such as Sligo and Mayo, this strategic focus led to long term collaborative initiatives with the HSE and in 2007, Sligo Arts Service was the first Local Authority to publish a participatory arts and health strategy.

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Nicola Dunne was formerly the Arts and Wellbeing Specialist with Kildare West Wicklow County Addiction Team. 

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