Getting to the matter of Greater Manchester: How long is a piece of hope?

Art is the highest form of hope
Gerhard Richter, Artist

Art is the only thing we have that can save us from ourselves.
Olie Martin, Artist – “Sounds of the Streets”

Three is the magic number
De la Soul

I am delighted to join the MIAHSC team as the need for social change becomes ever more pressing, and as the case for it is made clearer every day to those of us working in arts and health. For the past ten years, I have worked as a freelance consultant which, on the plus side, has led to being involved in some fantastic and varied projects alongside colleagues in health, housing, culture, heritage and the arts, and which in turn has afforded me a broad-ranging and networked systemic view. On the flip-side, I have lived in fear of both meetings with a ‘quick’ round-table introduction and of that classic London question – ‘so, what do you do?’, having never really quite known; a state of affairs which has not only earnt me the nomenclature ‘Chandler Bing’ after the enigmatically employed character from Friends, but prompted earnest enquiry from even partners and close family members that my professional ambiguity plus international globetrotting must mean that I am in fact in MI5. It’s a good feeling to have found a home for my world view and messy thinking at the Institute.

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Those familiar with my work around “A Fourth Way”, which proposes a new and holistic economic paradigm for our times, will know that I am no fan of the polarisation with which we are currently beleaguered. The ‘us and them’ mentality which sees us entrenched in warring factions has spilled over into our system of governance, creating powerful – and false – dichotomies between ‘economic’ and ‘social’, ‘public’ and ‘private’, ‘business’ and ‘community’. Worse still, we have seen the rise of a vocabulary of consensus which simply melds together one concept from each side of a binary, in many cases lending the harder term a little social kudos to soften the blow for the neoliberal palate. Here lives ‘inclusive growth’, ‘good work’ and ‘community wealth-building’. Despite the maturity and established criticality of socially engaged arts practice, I regularly experience ‘arts’ and ‘health’ being similarly polarised, usually with ‘the health sector’ being viewed as the serious business end, and the arts either flagrantly instrumentalised or reduced to a ‘nice to have’. 

What most attracted me to the Institute’s work was that the third point in its trilogy – arts, health and social change, bringing arts and health together not just in relation to each other, but combining toward a shared mission, introducing the dynamic and forward moving proposition of change into the no-man’s land of the middle ground. ‘Social Prescribing’ is the newest establishment approach to navigating this potentially rich, but difficult space. Where it is being done well, it is being done very well. Recently, I facilitated a session in Tameside where a colleague described how with her support and encouragement, a man suffering from crippling social isolation had joined a local dance class, meeting a partner as a result and saying that it ‘had changed his life’. The same week, I heard about a woman being sent directly from A&E in her pyjamas to a voluntary sector women’s organisation, without any prior notice. Even in these early stages, the pressure is beginning to show for charity and voluntary services with scant and already pushed resources. The Government has committed to funding link workers to mediate between health care providers, service users and social care providers (including, in the broad sense, arts and cultural organisations), but there has been little indication of additional investment in either the social and cultural offer, or indeed in artists and practitioners. In meeting the challenges of the (in vogue) Social Prescribing model, can Greater Manchester find a way, as is often claimed, to ‘do things differently’?

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The Manchester Declaration’, launched by the MIAHSC at last year’s World Healthcare Congress sets out a future-focussed and definitive statement of intent. Within five years, it envisages that ‘Greater Manchester will be a city region where arts and culture are seen as central to the wellbeing of its diverse residents and workforce, a global leader exemplifying the very best in arts, health and social change’. The Institute’s work with the GMCA to deliver the GM Culture, Health and Wellbeing study (for publication in Autumn 2019) will explore the current landscape and showcase examples of good practice across the region, making recommendations for how we do the good things even better, or even more. On the back of that work, the discrete but interconnected big questions we will seek to answer as a Research Institute are: How do we know when social change has happened or is happening? What does success look like? And how do we measure that success?

My work on ‘A Fourth Way’ rejects both the binary approach and the consensus of the middle to instead propose a holistic and human understanding of ‘growth’. It is informed by and designed for Economy 4.0 and the Fourth Industrial revolution and responds to its key characteristics (such as automation and environmental sustainability) with a human-centred understanding. I hope to bring some of this thinking and human focus to the Institute’s work. 

Progressive macro-economic thinking already recognises the limitations of GDP and cost benefit analysis, which for me seem even less relevant when used to express the value of the arts. As regards to health, is our main goal in improving health outcomes really to reduce the productivity gap by x% and generate £x for GDP? It is hard to accept that GDP, which in most cases includes the proceeds of the illegal drugs trade and prostitution, is a credible indicator of success. My own career-long aversion to cost benefit analysis started when colleagues at an economic development agency presented on a road-safety intervention that had saved nine lives - and their next slide told us about the resulting cost saving. In practice, I am yet to meet any arts or health organisation or practitioner, or anyone who has taken part in a project, who enjoys the ‘dance of the ticky boxes’ at the end. Evaluation of this sort is generally seen as a burden, as practitioners are forced to shoehorn outcomes into inflexible criteria, to ascribe ill-fitting quantitative values and to prove a monetary return on investment. These pro-forma questions, including some I have seen used with young people experiencing mental health problems, can range from the useless to the irresponsible, demanding difficult answers from vulnerable participants. The ticky box has got to go.

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Last month, I facilitated a session with a room of what I would call decision-makers, mainly from the public health sector. Through a series of provocations, we discussed why we are stuck in the mindset that success equals cost benefit, financial growth and GDP, and who was responsible for keeping us there. ‘It’s the decision makers’ came the reply. At another meeting, colleagues discussed how we could best present project outcomes to meet what “the commissioners” would expect to see. In both instances, I was struck by this Lacanian ‘Other’ who is responsible for keeping us in this limited mindset. Then, at the same meeting, a colleague suggested we measure hope. This is more like it! During my PhD I did a year in America and was hugely inspired by the work of the Mayor’s Office of Policy and Innovation in Seattle, where as part of their work to develop a co-produced City Strategy, they worked with young men taking part in an artistic project delivered in partnership with the probation service to co-create an evaluation framework for the project’s success. The young men expressed a lack of belief from other people in their ability to realise a positive future for themselves, and as a result the primary evaluation metric used for the project was “the extent to which someone believes in me”. Last year, I was involved in a phenomenal project in Manchester called “Sounds of the Streets” which brought together artists experiencing homelessness, MMU students (from the WOAH – Without a Home - project) and the GM Mayor’s Office, who worked alongside local architectural and engineering practices to create a sculptural piece for Piccadilly Station within the International Festival of Arts and Homelessness, based on one of the artists’ recordings of the GM street sub-culture soundscape. The key outcome described by the artists was the chance to escape the labels of ‘homelessness’ and ‘lived experience’ and to be engaged, instead, as artists. In a human, as opposed to extractive, economy, our labels are based on what we contribute, not what we cost.

The project opened my ears as well as my eyes, and I began to think more about the sound of the city, and the relationship of sound to economics – what I have christened sononomics. I am interested in ways to measure the volume of an economy, and given that sound cannot travel through a vacuum, to assess what makes up the matter of Greater Manchester? Within that, how do we measure the human experience? Can we weigh hope? Count joy? As we go forward with the Institute’s work, we are keen to explore these ideas and to test new ways of measuring and evaluating the value and impact of arts and health projects, and their contribution to our shared social progress. We would very much welcome your ideas, input, participation and help. 

Just how deep is your love?

Clare Devaney
Manchester Institute for Arts, Health & Social Change

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All images are from Sounds of the Streets

My early thoughts on how to measure the volume of an economy, initially called ‘CIV4.0’ can be found here, alongside other proposals for alternatives to GDP: Indigo Prize (p42)

You can find out more about ‘A Fourth Way’ through my TEDx talks at Birmingham and  Chester.

Warning: the Birmingham TEDx involves an impromptu karaoke version of “Three is the Magic Number”, by De La Soul. 

Spoiler: Three isn’t the magic number.

Clive Parkinson