• Engagement with the arts takes on a higher significance during unsettled times, helping with mental strain and unleashing the imagination to escape, innovate and create new ways of being.
  • The established contribution of creative industries to the field of global health combined with the shock of COVID-19 provides an opportunity to reinvent the social role of arts organizations as special places of gathering for people to develop.
  • 3 Wellcome projects show how culture can create positive change in health research resulting from the artful combination of curiosity and creativity, together with policy thinking and making.

A UK study of adult mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic has found that more than a fifth of a 70,000-person sample engaged more with the arts during lockdown than before. Researchers have also found that Google searches for prayer reached their highest ever levels at this time, with many finding meaning through psychology and philosophy.

Statistics like these throw up interesting questions for cultural institutions (but also for places of worship) as they reopen. How can we channel private interests through creative public engagement? How can we renew or reinvent the social role of arts organizations as special places of gathering for people to develop and nurture themselves?

The social role of the arts

At Wellcome we have found that our cultural engagement projects involving artists and commissions often jump start a process of profound investigation into particular issues – and sometimes along entirely unpredictable avenues.

More and more arts and cultural practitioners are eager to make work that tackles big social issues and they are deeply invested in contributing to public wellbeing. The fevered uncertainty of our times, and the fragmented world we see around us, are encouraging us to assemble projects that positively impact engagement with people’s inner lives and abilities to make sense of the world, and their place in it.

In this work, our concern is as much with the social as the psychological and spiritual aspects of art. And embedded as we are in a research organization, it is maybe not surprising that we are also fascinated by the potential for exhibitions, events and other programmes to help people find things out, imagine different ideas, and simply provide a space where different views can convene.

The science-art sweet spot

Perhaps it is the intersection between science and art where global health issues can be filtered through the lens of the individual: where policy and research is mediated through human experience. The power of these intersections is compelling – both for the efficacy of research and for generating a better understanding of the human condition. Here are three examples of projects that have achieved the "sci-art sweet spot".

1. Mental health and the arts: Mindscapes

A project where Wellcome is actively bringing together intersecting concerns with the arts and mental health is Mindscapes. The creative co-programming at the heart of this initiative will focus particularly on aspects of life and thought which seem to help young people tackle anxiety or depression: ‘active ingredients’ that shore up their resilience and that might help them repair.

Still in its initial stages, we are busily shaping a cultural exploration of the topic that seeks to support locally grounded conversations in a variety of international locations: conversations shaped by the histories of particular people, and their specific experiences of their own place.

Collaborations with artists, researchers, galleries and other organizations are being initiated in Bengaluru, Berlin, New York, and Tokyo, with satellite partnerships being developed in other international locations. We are taking an open approach, drawing on stories less often heard.

Our concern will be on varied and authentically local experiences, and on how they might build shared global narratives. And by supporting unlikely alliances and collective enquiry across grassroots activity, policy-making and cultural co-production, we aim to help transform how we can understand, address and talk about mental health.

Early outputs from Mindscapes will be presented at this year’s Hamwe Festival in Kigali, Rwanda: a bridge-building event that showcases the contribution of creative industries to the field of global health. This year the theme is social justice and mental health. Concerned with fresh and creative methods of improving health and wellbeing through arts, one particular focus will be on the role of music in understanding, but also preventing or alleviating mental illness.

Hamwe Festival, Kigali

This approach is picked up in another of Mindscapes’ early partnerships with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ellen Reid. Her public art piece SOUNDWALK, is a GPS-enabled musical composition that responds to listeners locations as they wander through Central Park in New York, bathing them in sounds that illuminate the natural environment around them, encouraging reflection and introspection.

Mindscapes will seek to carve out a role for culture in which positive changes in mental health research can result from the artful combination of curiosity and creativity, stirred together with policy thinking and making.

2. Art as research: Covid-Living

Connected to Mindscapes, the Covid Living project emerged from Wellcome’s attempts to understand the mental health component of the pandemic. It experimented with forms of cultural enquiry in order to sample direct insights from 14-to-24-year-olds experiencing the first global pandemic in a century.

Image: Statista

It was developed with film-maker Jack Arbuthnot and the creative agency Flying Object, whose agile imaginations concocted a range of ways to spend time on-line with young people in their homes in unusually taxing circumstances around the world. This collaborative exercise resulted in a form of ‘remote documentary’: a form of enquiry, mediated by social media and video conferencing, which might fruitfully sit alongside other more academic research.

“When I indulge in art… my mind doesn’t wander to different places. Specifically to the things that make me anxious.” (25 year-old female from India)

“Covid-19 itself was very helpful in getting my life in order… a great way to avoid being swamped with unnecessary events…” (22 year-old male from Tokyo)

“All I can do is try my best… God gives you lemons you just make lemonade.” (23 year-old male from Hong Kong)

These are some of the comments shared by young people working out new ways of being during lockdown. Along with many others in the survey, they are by turns touching, unexpected, funny, but often quite ordinary.

A striking aspect of these digital glimpses of individuals struggling, but also coping, with the mental strain of unsettled times, is just how significant engagement with arts can be. They report finding pleasure in it, as well as how it helps them relax or avoid unhelpful patterns of thought.

3. Imagining the future to prepare for it: Contagious Cities

Mindscapes and Covid-Living follow in the footsteps of Wellcome’s first experimental cultural initiative: Contagious Cities. The project supported local conversations around the global challenges of epidemic preparedness. It was staged across four global cities: Berlin, Geneva, Hong Kong and New York to mark the centenary of the 1918 flu pandemic, during which a third of the world’s population was infected and 50 million people died.

It explored the intersecting histories of how people have inhabited cities, and how microbes have simultaneously inhabited humans. A topic that has, of course, gained frightening relevance during 2020. It is not unusual, of course, for art and culture to offer a window onto the future and to offer the tools to make sense of it when it eventually plays out.

“Cities bring people – and germs – together. Through the stories it tells, Contagious Cities explores the outcomes of this cohabitation, and the relationship between microbes, migration and the metropolis.”

— Wellcome Trust

Public health and culture: a mutual enrichment

All three projects enable international cultural engagement through a curiosity-led commitment to juxtaposing perspectives and practices, and to developing deep, learning-based relationships along the way.

By supporting, and then linking, concrete local partnerships, these umbrella initiatives draw on the best of research organizations, giving us the chance to promote wellbeing and the global public good through the mutual enrichment of public health and culture.