Arts Ability is a person-centred initiative set within caring environments, the primary goal of which is to provide access to a diverse range of high quality arts experiences based on meaningful engagement between participant artists and professional artists. The programme is underpinned by solid partnerships to ensure a sustainable infrastructure for long-term access and participation in creative arts experiences for people who experience mental health problems and/or disabilities. Promoting the principles of social inclusion, the programme values each participant equally, encouraging individual ownership, choice and achievement to empower and enhance the development of the whole person.
The Arts Ability programme is facilitated by a team of practicing professional artists who are sub-contracted annually by Wexford County Council. The programme currently includes visual art at CWCW and RT, creative writing and visual art at KTAC and a multidisciplinary arts programme at WRIDS, with opportunities for inter-agency collaboration internally and externally.
Arts Ability removes the barriers to arts participation and is an exemplar model of partnership, where artists integrate with the given environment to ensure that engagement is tailored to a range of needs. The reciprocal expertise of arts professionals and health professionals informs appropriate creative approaches and projects benefit from health professionals who bring their own creative skills set. For example, a unique collaboration between 29 participants of the KTAC Writers Group, the writer facilitator and nursing staff resulted in the publication of Climbing Mountains in our Minds (2012), a collection of creative writing and photographs marking the closure of St. Senan’s Hospital. Each participant suggested specific locations for the nurse-photographer to capture and then responded to the photographs, and memories evoked, through the written word.
The diverse nature of Arts Ability settings necessitates a spectrum of approaches from ‘hands over hands’ work with support staff, to significant personal projects, group work and collaboration. The overarching intention is to foster independent creative exploration in which participants are recognised as artists and writers in their own right with opportunities for professional development. For some participants, this work has evolved into cohesive studio groups being established. The CWCW (New Ross) Ltd. Studio Group was invited by Waterford Healing Arts Trust to respond to the hospital environment, thus experiencing research, travel and networking aspects of professional practice. A number of site visits informed a body of work, Emergence, exhibited at WHAT in spring 2012.
These opportunities are augmented by active roles in facilitating the publication, recording and exhibition of finished work, and participants have themselves led workshops and readings. For example, a KTAC writer-participant co-hosted a Poetry Ireland event with poet Pat Boran, which was attended by two external writers’ groups at KTAC. From the content of the weekly workshops to large-scale projects, the programme is guided by the individual preferences, styles and needs of participants, thereby encouraging access to a variety of skills and formats. Since 2010, these formats have included woodcarving, textiles, ceramics, sculpture, film, animation, printmaking, knitting, memoir, writing for radio, short stories, monologues and poetry.
Since its inception, Arts Ability has been evaluated formatively and summatively through internal processes and external advice. The programme commits to an ongoing review of direction, purpose, practice and process to maintain quality, support development and to ensure sustainability.
The programme is monitored through routinely recording its outcomes and outputs. Facilitating artists keep attendance figures and workshop notes; archive project work, events and press; and submit annual project reports as well as reporting at quarterly steering group meetings. These meetings are attended by representatives from each stakeholder in the partnership including three service users who form an active link between the steering group and participant peers. This ensures a responsive approach to the broader needs of participants in addition to the day-to-day tailoring of activities. The minutes of meetings form an ongoing record of performance to inform learning and development. An external evaluation of the programme from 2010-2012 and a review of policies were conducted in the latter half of 2012.
Participants are regarded as artists and their practice has grown and evolved through their engagement with the programme. Prolific workshop activity feeds an extensive programme of festivals, exhibitions, publications, launches, screenings and readings in arts and health contexts and in mainstream cultural venues. Each visual arts project has a rolling in-house exhibition programme and some projects have created more integrated artworks for the care setting. A ceramic ‘frieze’ stretches the length of a corridor at WRIDS and service users at KTAC and St. Senan’s Hospital have transformed the walls and furniture of a once-dated, underused tearoom. This redesign has encouraged service users to congregate, thereby instigating a new social dynamic. Staff have noted a renewed sense of ownership as service users pick flowers for the tearoom tables or transfer their new interior design skills to their home environment.
An important strand to the programme is the display of work outside the health context and examples of this are exhibitions at Newtonbarry House, Bunclody, and at the 1798 Centre, Enniscorthy. The KTAC Writers Group have read their poetry and prose at The Presentation Centre, Enniscorthy; exhibited their poems as large format banners at Kilkenny Arts Festival; and, in 2009, launched a CD recording of their anthology, From the Hill of the Wild Berries, at Wexford Opera House. These opportunities are significant physical expressions of value that promote social inclusion, offering optimum benefit to participants.
Documentation and Dissemination
The programme is continually documented for internal archiving and regular updates appear on www.wexford.ie/arts and other arts and health networks. Wider dissemination and community involvement are considered integral to programming aimed at social inclusion, with coverage from local press and radio appearing alongside professional, promotional and interpretive material.
Recent documentation has included catalogues for exhibitions locally at Newtownbarry House and internationally in Wales and Luxembourg. The writing group’s first anthology, From the Hill of the Wild Berries (2008), is available in local outlets and libraries, with a CD recording available from KTAC. Their second publication, Climbing Mountains in Our Minds: Stories and Photographs from St. Senan’s Hospital, Enniscorthy, was published in November 2012. Readings and film screenings are programmed in community venues and the writing group’s poetry collection A Window to Our Words, which first featured as a weekly poetry column in a local newspaper, toured to Scotland as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival 2012. The poems were displayed at the festival hub and in shop windows throughout Renfrewshire as part of Read Raw Ltd’s Poetry Windows project.
Current partners of the core programme are:
County Wexford Community Workshop (New Ross) Ltd. (CWCW)
Recreational Therapy Unit, St. Senan’s Hospital, Enniscorthy (RT)
Killagoley Training & Activation Centre, Enniscorthy (KTAC)
Wexford Residential Intellectual Disability Services, Enniscorthy (WRIDS)