If I asked a room full of people how many of us have had our lives enriched by the arts, I’m guessing that most would say they had – and that’s exactly what happened at a talk I gave for the for the RSA Fellows Taunton on the theme of: ‘The impact of the arts on wellbeing in the community’. But I believe our responses to that question are almost instinctive – how do we really and truly KNOW the enrichment – the impact – on us?

I decided to take an arbitrary look at how much art is around us in our day-to-day lives and how it impacts on us, and looked at an everyday item with a fresh pair of eyes, using a newspaper chosen at random. Now it helps to have a husband who is numerate to help work out the percentages from the column inch coverage! I associate newspapers with the art form of words – but I was surprised: 70% was pictorial; (of that about 50% was advertising). The type of art given coverage was immensely varied – a new version of Carmen (and the text tells you how many hugely different versions there have been, multi-culturally, over recent years), ‘The Cursed Artist’ Egon Schiele, Ringo Starr’s Spitting Image puppet – and that was just over 2 pages. However I found myself wondering: is all this art influencing and shaping us – eg all the adverts – or merely reflecting society as it is now and was previously (eg the photo of the Suffragettes on the front page)? And that’s a question which can vex if you consider the impact – the value – of art since the beginning of mankind. Cave paintings, Egyptian, Mayan, Roman, Greek, Far Eastern cultures’ art – did it influence or reflect? Or both? Did medieval art with its depictions of demons and the devil, eg by Fra Angelico, reflect the Catholic church’s beliefs, or were they effectively 15th century adverts for how to behave? (Or more likely the penalties if you didn’t!) Powerful videos and photos nowadays reflect the world’s events, but they also influence movements to challenge or change. Examples which spring to mind include Tiananmen Square footage galvanising further international protest; images of refugees or starving children leading to calls to action for governments, and fundraising, or perhaps tourism posters depicting – or luring us to – holiday destinations and activities. Are we reflecting, or changing, the world now with photo-shopping even selfies to ‘artistic perfection’ and arguably driving young people’s expectations through the medium of art but not necessarily their wellbeing?

Prove it!

Before we can MEASURE and therefore PROVE the impact of the arts on our lives, we should attempt some definitions. However this in itself is problematic, as every piece of research on the impact of the arts uses a different spectrum of the arts – some including cultural activities such as sports, others broadening even into philosophy and history as part of the disciplines of art. So not a level playing field to start with. Communities are part of society. However in the time of the Renaissance only a select few were deemed as ‘society’; this view probably perpetuated even through to Victorian times; and Margaret Thatcher famously said in an interview to Woman’s Own that:‘There is no such thing as society’. And specifically looking at communities: do we mean regions, cities, neighbourhoods, schools, ethnic groups? Some arts impact on only a relatively limited part of a community – perhaps a group of less able-bodied people. Does this work have more validity, more impact, than art affecting a much wider group of people?

So we come to trying to define impact – definitely a thorny one! It drew a great deal of debate after my talk – are impact and value interchangeable? A quote I used drew out a discussion on purpose versus value: ‘I define art as something that has no purpose.’ Wolfgang Tillmans, German artist and photographer. It was generally agreed during our debate that the value of art should never just boil down to pure economic impact, yet that is how so many in the arts have to define their work, for example in order to lever funding. Impact could be about quantitative measures or could be qualitative and therefore subjective – so one person’s beauty is another’s ugly – and both could have value in terms of impact. Do we mean economic, cultural or social impact; do we mean direct community-level or individual or organisational-level? And whilst I think they are really important issues to address in the greater societal context of whether or not there is a value to the arts, believe me, when we were applying for charitable status for ArtsTaunton we had to grapple with these very definitions to meet the Charity Commission’s exacting requirements.


“Art for art’s sake, money for God’s sake” – 10 CC, 1975.

There are many claims that the arts have a beneficial impact on the economy. In 2013, Arts Council England commissioned a report and found that the arts and culture sector had a turnover of £12.4 billion, which provides more than one in 12 jobs in the creative sector in the UK.  For those who are into figures, and not just artistically portrayed ones, in respect of Gross Value Added (GVA), which is the net benefit once the external cost has been stripped out, there’s also a 35.8% increase between 2010 and 2013 to £7.7 billion.

So – are these statistics just fairy tales? Not at all: a great example is the regeneration in the north-east – and I am partisan here, being born and brought up there. I can confirm that Gateshead was the Cinderella of the Newcastle area until the Council identified that art was intrinsic to economic regeneration. The Angel of the North provided huge opportunities for marketing (despite being loathed or ridiculed by many locally, initially), and inspired further investment in the Sage – now with a GVA impact of £8.5m pa, making it the most significant arts venue outside London. It has contributed £283m in 10 years to the regional economy. And Gateshead no longer languishes by the cinders of big (I won’t say ugly as it’s not!) sister Newcastle – it’s been transformed into the princess. And arguably another potential impact of art – creating a sense of belonging – is embodied for me in knowing that I’m almost home when I pass the Angel of the North, and almost in my adopted home when I pass Sedgemoor’s Wicker Man – and hopefully at some point we may have a significant similar Taunton landmark…?

More globally, a 2015 report by Cultural Times confirmed UNESCO’s assertion re the contribution of the cultural and creative industries to sustainable development and assesses the contribution of cultural and creative industries to economic growth as creating 29.5 million jobs worldwide. Back to the UK: it is also estimated that tourism contributes close to a billion pounds per annum to the arts and culture economy. Visitors spend money on attending the arts and on local businesses – perhaps even visiting specifically or staying longer for an event. Local spending by these arts venues and businesses has multiplier effects – eg visitors to our local Brewhouse theatre might stay at a hotel, the theatre might spend money on local musicians and lighting or set design, programme printers etc, people buy drinks or have a pre- or post-theatre meal, visitors stop off at the local petrol station to fill up. But we could debate – if you draw more visitors and tourists from outside the community than, say, a local community arts project might, is there less DIRECT impact on local community members – so which is of greater benefit and has the most impact on the community’s ultimate wellbeing?

 The domino effect

Many reports indicate that the arts attract residents and businesses to a community by improving its image and making it more appealing. This is especially true for attracting highly skilled, high-wage residents, who will have a larger economic impact than less-skilled people. Continuing with this domino effect, people may invest in property in an area that they feel is “up-and-coming” because of the presence of the arts. And then banks may be more likely to lend to businesses in those areas, and so on. But in 2015 the Arts Council published a report: ‘Contribution of the arts and culture sector to the national economy’, which provided new evidence that the art and culture sector makes a strong, tangible contribution to the national economy. A further Arts Council report explores ‘why culture matters’. And there is a wonderful quote from the ex-chair of the Arts Council – Sir Peter Bazalgette‘The new city quarters where young people want to live, work and create companies need a soul as well as a sewer.’

However – back to being devil’s advocate – one issue in determining the impact of the arts is distinguishing between revenue from locals vs. revenue from tourists. And do the arts simply represent an alternative outlet for spending for locals rather than an additional outlet? And would investing the same amount of money in something else have a stronger impact on the local economy? There is little research on that and it’s definitely something to work on.

What about the impact above and beyond – or alongside – the economic benefit: the wellbeing piece? We all seem to be aware that art matters to our quality of life, and again there are dozens of pieces of relevant research. A global organisation called People United looked at how art affects psychology and civil society and showed compelling evidence of positive changes in how people think, feel and act towards one another after participating in arts experiences – in other words, the arts were impacting on kindness. And another study shows that Harry Potter readers have an increased level of tolerance and acceptance of different types of people! The RSA ran the Arts and Ecology Centre from 2005 to 2010, with a focus on the arts’ human impact and especially artists’ responses to environmental challenges, and 2017 saw a partnership programme between the RSA and the Education EndowmentFoundation looking at how cultural learning activity improves educational outcomes, in particular for disadvantaged children.

Other studies indicate that art builds interpersonal ties and promotes volunteering, builds community identity and pride, and even reduces delinquency in high-risk youth. There is a USA sheriff who funds after-school arts clubs, saying: “Children whose hearts and minds are nourished and challenged in wholesome ways – such as by art, dance, theatre and sports – are much less likely to succumb to the lure of crime.”

Further to the impact on young people (and at ArtsTaunton we are acutely aware of the importance of this and want to develop a youth festival locally): I discovered a statistic quoted by Harriet Harman in a Labour party report. Apparently ‘Students from low income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree.’ There is also a demonstrable correlation between schoolchildren’s grades in maths and literacy, and their involvement with drama or music activities – the ‘Mozart effect’ which also enhances visuo-spatial reasoning. (I’ve come to the conclusion that from my constant clumsiness and my maths grades at school, I clearly haven’t listened to enough Mozart!)

So – other than in schools, in what community services might we find art having an impact? Examples include care homes (researchers from Newcastle University found that viewing contemporary visual art had positive effects on the personal lives of nursing home-bound older people), and inspirational case studies can be found in a report by The Baring Foundation. Arguably art has an impact in hospices, hospitals, prisons, even shopping malls were suggested to me. A recent local example of the winners in the Taunton Deane Business Awards creative industries category, sponsored by ArtsTaunton, was where Bridgwater College students, using art, involved homeless people – the client group – in refreshing the interior design of the Open Door premises in Taunton. Although the arts are by no means classified as a health and social service, look at the work of orchestras such as the Royal Philharmonic, which runs workshops for people with dementia and provides musicians in residence working with adults with a complex range of mental health issues. In a previous role at bibic I saw first-hand how music and movement impacted positively on children with brain injuries and learning difficulties. There’s the Reading Well Books on Prescription scheme in GPs’ surgeries. Many projects are supported by Arts Council England or the UK National Lottery – and that means by you and me. We are all contributing to the wellbeing of others when we buy a Lottery ticket or in paying our taxes.

Locally, in Somerset Take Art’s Time to Move 3-year long case study reflected national findings and painted a vivid picture of the health impact of the arts, in this case the impacts from older people taking part in dance. The analysis does, I believe, support a wide range of arguments about how to measure the impact on wellbeing in society. 66.7% of respondents said it had increased their confidence (distracting thoughts from problems at home, making them feel more mobile, happier and stronger); 89.6% said they felt healthier: balance and posture and coordination were improved, reducing aches and pains and therefore helping with independence. Improvement to their quality of life or wellbeing for 86.7% was through improving memory by learning sequences, making friends, increasing energy and patience. Many had increased their interest in attending training or education. Of course it doesn’t take a lot to work out that this must, though it’s virtually impossible to quantify, have an impact on health and social care budgets – fewer falls, fewer drugs being prescribed, improved mental health, and so on. An increasing number of studies are examining these issues, from grass roots up to government levels, eg National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing and Arts for Health.

 Private experience, public impact?   

Returning to the question I posed at the beginning – ‘How many of us have had our lives enriched by the arts?’ it really helps to drill down into what has had a profound effect on us as individuals, and why. For me, it has included West Side Story transposing an already artistic notion – Romeo and Juliet – to reflect the racial and gang tensions; drawings by those incarcerated in WW11 concentration camps which had an even deeper pull on my heart having visited Auschwitz; Jan van Eyk’s Arnolfini portrait as it was my OU foundation course in the arts (40 years ago – ouch!) which opened my eyes to really examining a piece of art; work by the Pitmen Painters because it truly reflects my heritage; the opening ceremony of our Olympics with its visual and technological triumphs and those wonderful purple flames – it all engendered in me a pride in our broader society, and the fact that we put so much positive emphasis on the Paralympics. And I learned only last night that a man from here in Taunton – Piers Shepperd – who apparently learned his trade at Taunton’s Brewhouse theatre as a volunteer, became the Technical Director of the 2012 Olympic Ceremonies.

In personalising this, I hope I am emphasising a point – that art is an intensely private thing, and therefore none of us truly knows how someone else experiences the same art. However once we share our experiences, be they positive or negative, then we have a collective response within our community and an enhanced perception of the impact. And the opportunity to share, discuss, and challenge can only be a force for good as a contribution towards our wellbeing.

Art opens everything up to such a bigger spectrum of people. And this is why I personally believe art is powerful, because art saved my life.’

David John Tovey artist – do check out his tragic and powerful life story.


So what did those attending the RSA Taunton talk say had impacted on them, personally, the most? Here’s some of what they shared:

  • So many different types and variety of music – has a profound effect as we know on mood and sociability as long it’s something one likes – and maybe even if not; love sculpture – also good architecture which I consider sculpture – massively enhances environments – or ruins them; creativity depends on the subject – films need not be ‘American type’ but not too ‘Arthouse’ either; not poetry, but books, essays both fiction and non-fiction reflecting reality – or not; just the beauty of language is uplifting.
  • My daughters’ musical careers.
  • In recent years, paintings/artworks/sculptures have been the major impact on my life and interests; all my life and continuing – a book is always a friend. Taunton’s music: the cross-section of music in Taunton is stunning and of surprising high quality – we need to build on this – I sing in a local choir; an untapped seam of richness – need to build on the legacy of Wordsworth and Coleridge.
  • Beethoven – plumbs the depth of our humanity every time; Matisse – expressing the sheer joy of colour and shape. Theatre – Shakespeare – the greatest and always something to learn from him.
  • Theatre- being an actor and a founder cast member of the Rocky Horror Show; art teacher, being a Master of Somerset Guild of Craftsmen.
  • Working with visual artists commercially.
  • Classical and jazz music and especially symphony orchestras; keen amateur photographer; biographies – also reading to keep up with science interests.
  • Mostly going to the opera live and listening to all types of music – find it engaging and moving; love films and TV – especially human interest – learning about new things.
  • Wide range of music – singing in a choral society; belonging to the Offwell School of Art and Wellbeing; own film production company 1980-96; anything worth reading.
  • English folk music – Sidmouth festival as a source of gathering and celebrating musical roots; Samuel Palmer/Blake – landscape and identity; Peter Doig – Scottish painter – Caribbean landscape and figurative painting; Paul Nash; Eric Ravilious – re-imagining the English landscape; mostly drama – Brecht a great influence – impact is to challenge naturalism; Dickens and Hardy – portrayals of Victorian city and rurality.
  • Enjoy music but not in a working sense; artist/tutor to adults in adult education colleges and abroad; restoration of oil paintings; dabbling in poetry workshops and being included in books.
  • Haydn; performing in choirs; poetry – lots!
  • Classical concerts; mother’s influence as an architect; Hull, City of Culture; art classes and amateur painter; visits to galleries; Ilminster Warehouse; exhibitions, clubs and Taunton/Yeovil/Stroud’s offerings in respect of films etc; Saffron Walden’s Shakespeare’s sonnets readings tour; drama and theatre; wide range of books and book clubs; important to think about what makes Taunton distinctive and have links to all schools – next generation important.
  • My career as a musician, composer, director, theatre-maker; collaborations with artists; film collaborations; less impacted by books and poems.

Other references: RSA Arts & Ecology Centre; partnership programme between RSA and the Education Endowment Foundation.

Impact of community arts programs CDA 2000; Landry et al. 1996; Matarasso 1997; Matzke 2000; Murphy 1995; Trent 2000; Williams 1995; Wollheim 200, Albert 1995; Fiske 1999; Jackson 1979; Remer 1990; Seham 1997; Sharp 2001; Weitz 1996; Winner and Hetland 2000, Bygren, Konlaan and Johansson 1996; Chabris et al. 1999; Hetland 2000; Landry et al. The arts increase social capital and community cohesion Costello 1998; Dolan 1995; Dreeszen 1992; Fritschner and Hoffman 1984; CDA 2000; Krieger 2001; Landry et al. 1996; Matarasso 1997; Matzke 2000; Murphy 1995; Ogilvie 2000; Preston 1983; Stern et al. 1994; Stern and Seifert 2002; Trent 2000; Williams 1995; Wollheim 2000. Engaging in creative activity or attending an artistic event appears to improve physical health Angus 1999; Baklien 2000; Ball and Keating 2002; Bygren, Konlaan and Johansson 1996; HDA 2000; Thoits and Hewitt 2001, Baklien 2000: 250-51; Ball and Keating 2002, Bygren, Konlaan and Johansson. Mozart effect – Chabris et al. 1999; Hetland 2000. Attracting businesses: cwi 1980b; Costello 1998; Walesh 2001. Arts Council England report from Centre for Economics and Business Research. Princeton.edu website.