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12 Jun 2020

Weaving the fabric of wellbeing

By Creative Waikato CEO, Dr. Jeremy Mayallz

Buzzwords for 2020? COVID-19, Dr Bloomfield, and wellbeing.

The word ‘wellbeing’ aligns with government strategic thinking, organisational goals, and personal living. It’s all-encompassing on every level, so no wonder, on every level we’ve used it again and again. That fact acknowledged, while the word itself may seem overused, the concept is as important as ever.

Let’s talk about this complicated fabric called wellbeing.

Perhaps we’re familiar with what it means and chances are we’ve got the right idea. It rightly means different things to different people and shows itself in different ways to an individual, to a whānau, to a community, to an organisation, or to the nation.

Across all levels, wellbeing is our capacity to live healthy and fulfilling lives by allowing us to identify who we are, how we engage with each other, and how we think and feel.  

As we move into a post-COVID life, there will be clear and urgent needs within the realms of mental health and wellbeing that need to be addressed. Let’s not forget the crucial part the arts plays within this framework. During these times of need when the world seems broken, the arts gets to work as an important thread weaving wellbeing back into society. As Toni Morrison said, “this is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”

Introducing the two threads: Arts and culture, and everything else

In this loom called life, we can see the horizontal threads as arts and culture, and the vertical threads as everything else. When both work together, arts and culture touching each strand of the other aspects of society, the interlocking strands form a beautiful and strong fabric.

Art and creativity are fundamental to building a healthy society

New Zealanders and the Arts research by Creative New Zealand (2017) shows that:
More than half of New Zealanders agree that the arts contribute positively to the economy (59%), improve New Zealand society (57%) and help define who we are as New Zealanders (54%)… and most New Zealanders agree the arts should be a part of everyone’s education (61%).

We’ve acknowledged it’s importance and now it’s about rebuilding as though it’s important.

Rebuilding on a societal level, creativity can encourage civic engagement, build resilience and contribute to quality of life. More and more studies highlight the positive outcomes that art and creativity can have on community and wellbeing.

Rebuilding on an personal level, art can increase our capacity for life, enrich our experiences, and build skills, self-esteem and sense of community. Each of these are important elements as we re-learn how to do life better in a post COVID world. Art also testifies to the power of human imagination, the unique capacity that we have to dream. Art tempts us to move beyond our perceived boundaries and limitations to explore a curious and creative new world of possibilities.

Stringing together ideas on culture

When we consider the idea of cultural wellbeing, we acknowledge that it can broadly encompass values, shared beliefs, customs, behaviours and identity. These sometimes intangible qualities help shape and define who we are as nation, our sense of space and place as individuals and communities, and help to make our country the diverse place that it is.

Culture is how we express our identity. It comes in many forms and shapes, but it enables us to share our stories and know who we are.

Wellbeing looks different as many times over as the number of cultures in our country and needs to be addressed within these different contexts. We must acknowledge the wellbeing of tangata whenua and understand wellbeing from a te ao Māori perspective as being central to our understanding of wellbeing in Aotearoa.

The value of having a community engaged in creative and cultural practices is wide ranging.
These can include:
•    benefits for mental and physical health
•    a greater sense of belonging and social cohesion
•    improved self-esteem and confidence
•    transformative educational outcomes
•    and growing social prosperity.

Art is a strong manifestation of culture and having sustainable and accessible arts activities are fundamental for strong cultural identity. Making, sharing and enjoying art is foundational to our cultural life and allows us to explore our histories and sense of identity. They engage our creativity and allow us to experience the world through someone else’s reality. They tell our stories, and allow us to share ideas.

Culture and art are therefore keenly responsible for the strength and vitality of the community of people who make up society.

Full, accessible and inclusive participation in cultural life for our society is both a human right, and a key measure of a just and democratic society.

Understanding the arts-iceberg

The arts in our society is like an iceberg floating in the ocean. The visible bits above the water are the tangible products of culture – paintings, sculpture, music, dance, theatre, poetry, etc. Then extending down beneath the water we discover the  foundation and ephemeral/intangible elements of the arts  – the values, beliefs, thoughts, and emotional responses that are essential in our understanding of ourselves and each other.

Artists offer experiences, emotions and intellectual engagement with things that may confront our own ideas of self. The benefit of which are far-reaching and long lasting, but hard to measure in terms of dollars and cents.

A whole ecosystem is required to keep a functioning and beneficial artistic culture alive; Having spaces to present work, having people to help make work, having access to materials and technology to craft work, and having audiences to engage with the work. Many times, each of these elements running on volunteer hours and good will.

With continued support for the arts, both artists and participants (as well as supporting organisations) can continue to develop their work, and continue to positively impact local and global communities.

The pandemic has highlighted the collective need we have for arts experiences. We have turned to arts to sustain us through difficult times.

Moving creatively into an era of recovery

So, now as we move into an era of recovery, think back to what the United Cities and Local Governments’ (UCLG) Culture 21 document reminds us of, arts and culture are an important “resource for the construction of the identities of people and communities… (they are) something that is alive and constantly evolving, (and) should be integrated into life and society in dynamic ways.”

We have seen how the arts can shape recovery for a city, as well as how arts and culture are core components of human and sustainable development.

The sustainability of arts organisations, and the services they offer to society, is vital. This means it is imperative that we continue to fund the arts. Some may say funding the arts is a waste when other ‘more essential’ things need to be funded first, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Arts funding is one of the most important functions and duties of our society. It is through the arts that we grow strong in our identity, where we reach understanding across cultures and ideologies, and where we find common ground in a rapidly changing and complex world.

Arts and culture are key contributors to the four well-beings that underline local and central government. Arts and culture must be acknowledged in long-term planning and aspirational visions for our towns, cities, regions and country.

Wellbeing may be an expansive stretch of fabric meaning different things to different people, but arts and culture will always be vital threads locking it together.