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Niamh O'Connor

Niamh O’Connor considers how arts and health co-ordinators straddle the worlds of arts and health and are uniquely placed to challenge the status quo of both fields of practice.

'In this way, an arts and health coordinator is a disruptive influence, scoping out a space for experiment, for the possibility of new models and modes of thinking in places that can be slow to change and risk averse.'

The conjoining of those two spheres – arts and health – is not something that I would have heard of when I first started out as an art student. Nor would I have dreamt of a role for myself as an arts and health co-ordinator. That has been a process of ‘becoming’. But sometime around 1997-’98, I experienced a profound sense of possibility when I was invited to facilitate women affected by domestic violence to ready their art work for public exhibition. Through this experience I found something creatively and personally satisfying which grasped me. Having ruled out art therapy as a career path, so began a deep interest and passion for arts participation and intercultural work. This interest led me to work in collaborative and socially engaged arts within mental health and disability contexts and in turn to the co-ordination of an arts and health programme.

Let me introduce the work of an arts and health co-ordinator: she (very occasionally he – at least in Ireland) may manage an arts collection in a hospital, organise art workshops for health service users, engage in research and health promotion, provide training to student medics, commission new art, inform the design of healthcare environments, facilitate performances, exhibitions, artist in residency programmes etc. The Arts Council’s Arts and Health Policy and Strategy defines the field of arts and health as embracing ‘a range of arts practices occurring primarily in healthcare settings, which bring together the skills and priorities of both arts and health professionals.’ (1) It goes on to braid artistic vision, goals and outcomes with the promotion of health and wellbeing by ‘improving quality of life and cultural access in healthcare settings.’ If we understand health as an interplay of biological, psychological and sociological wellbeing, then there must too be overlapping territories that appeal to our whole selves, for example the hospital that incorporates a performance space or the art gallery that hosts tours for people with dementia and their care partners. We could view arts and health as diversional activity (which is not to be sneezed at) or we could go further and see the potential of arts and health as a basis to make meaning, to practice creativity and enrich the imagination despite illness, infirmity or health status and to enhance healthcare settings as culturally rich environments for patients, visitors and staff.

Arts and health co-ordinators in the Republic of Ireland are a mixed bunch, with diverse (sometimes peculiar and precarious) employment conditions, working for statutory bodies, not-for-profits, local authorities, private enterprises, a coalition of agencies and also via self-employment and on a voluntary basis. (2) It is curious that although the vast majority of this work takes place within healthcare contexts, there is no arts and health policy within the Department of Health to support this work. As a result there is no consistent sense of where arts and health fits into the wider determinants of health and wellbeing or the prevention agenda. A policy document would give more certainty to healthcare professionals, strengthen partnerships and give ground to the excellent work that takes place across a range of healthcare, arts and community settings.

I liken my role as an arts and health co-ordinator to a safety pin, as if drawing together, fastening and securing two pieces of patterned fabric. This involves communicating and negotiating between two communities – the arts and the health sectors, across different settings, disciplines and artistic practices. Each has their own concerns, language, systems etc. and I attempt to provide some solid ground in the form of trust, to provide the right conditions and ambition for creative collaboration and partnership. For the most part, it is about understanding the concerns of the other and making a way to allow for something creative but yet uncertain to happen. In this way, an arts and health co-ordinator is a disruptive influence, scoping out a space for experiment, for the possibility of new models and modes of thinking in places that can be slow to change and risk averse. When we think of disruption, it can conjure dreaded school reports, curtailment of services and unruly behaviour but I use it in the sense of giving pause to reflect on the usual way of things, of enquiring and materialising new thinking.  But this is not to set the arts and health co-ordinator apart, as a lone champion of innovation and all that is good – no, arts and health has many champions and relies on good partnership.

Much is made about creativity in the workplace and artists are often perceived as innovators, but creativity ranges across a continuum of adaptive and innovative behaviours.(3) Both ends of the spectrum are equally valuable and creative. To generalise, we might describe adaptive persons as those who refine the mould and innovators as those who break it. Risk management in the delivery of healthcare prizes safety, continuity, concern for structure, control and clarity. Arts and health practitioners tend to be comfortable with periods of less clarity and sometimes relinquish control, share power or even invite chance as part of their methodology and although we see lots of benign art made as part of commissioning for healthcare and other public contexts, we sometimes see bold work that offers alternative positions and even punctures the surface to create new insights. In this sense, arts and health practices can play an important function in the dialogue between service user and service provider while affirming our creative selves in whatever professional role we have.  In my view some of the most important aspects of the role of an arts and health co-ordinator are to build trust, form links between various actors and partners and find resources to support the work that emerges within this rich milieu of human experience. Disrupting the status quo by asking ‘what if?’ and ‘why not?’ allows us to re-imagine both fields of activity and find new relationships between the arts and health.

Niamh O’Connor is an artist and freelance arts co-ordinator. She is the co-ordinator of the Arts Initiative in Mental Health, a programme of the Mental Health Service Sligo Leitrim.


1 The Arts Council (2009). The Arts Council Arts and Health Policy and Strategy 2010 – 2014. The Arts Council.
2 Internal research survey of its members by Arts + Health Coordinators Ireland
3 Kirton, M. (1976). Adaptors and innovators: A description and measure. Journal of Applied Psychology


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