Vital Signs: HE+ART celebrating the diversity of arts and health practice in Sligo - a new opinion piece by Mary McAuliffe

As we move into more uncertain and difficult times for the arts in Ireland the practice of arts and health remains a vital and dynamic aspect of Sligo’s cultural ecology. The Sligo model demonstrates the value of embedding partnership relationships between local authorities and the HSE, which in turn supports the commissioning of artists, innovation and wider understanding of the value of arts and health practice.

Adopting a strategic approach to the development of arts and health practice is vital in order to address issues of sustainability, mainstreaming projects, maximising resources and integrating learning to inform policy and practice. This can be achieved on a phased, incremental basis if key local stakeholders come together and work as partners to create opportunities for cross sector involvement. However, to really succeed arts and health projects require public service buy in from the HSE and the Local Authorities. In Sligo, we started with one project and grew from there; The Maugherow Pilot Project (1998-2001) provided the initial focus to bring people together and acted as catalysts in the formation of important cross-sector relationships through the sharing of knowledge and skills.

Projects can then be used to demonstrate the positive impact of arts and health work on the ground for service users, their families and the broader community, which in turn can motivate key stakeholders to expand into new health care and community settings. Furthermore, the life-enhancing capacity of arts and health practice provides an effective advocacy tool to influence thinking and build support within the HSE and local authorities.

In Sligo we moved from these beginnings to setting up the Arts and Health Steering Group and this marked a second phase in the development of cross sector collaboration. Members of the steering group brought a wide range of expertise, ideas and perspectives to the table. Group meetings encouraged effective communication across sectors and between branches of the same sector. New linkages were formed across a range of resource organizations, which led to an improved range of approaches and a diversity of programming in the county. Secondly, in 2006 Orla Moloney was commissioned by the steering group to;

  • examine what international research said about the place of arts in maintaining and improving health and social gain;
  • what impact Sligo’s arts and health programme had on participating stakeholders, how the effects of these programmes coincided with outcomes elsewhere, how they fitted in relation to local, regional and national policies; and
  • how partnership could maximize the potential for organisation and delivery of arts and health programmes in Sligo and the North West in the future.

The research found that the principles of equity, individual contribution and quality artistic input, as well as person-centered approaches to making art that were not therapy focused were central to the Sligo approach.

On the ground the application of these principles continues to impact positively on the mental and physical health of participants. The partnership model is facilitating a more human and holistic engagement with service users where they are understood by their families and care staff in terms of their ability and talent as opposed to merely being seen as ‘clients’.

Our understanding of arts and health practice is developing and changing as we evolve and this is bringing its own improvements for all concerned. A good example of this is tackling the ‘professional isolation’ artists often experience in planning and delivering arts and health projects.

Artists need a forum where they can share their experiences and approaches and also discuss issues of concern that might arise from time to time.  In Sligo, these issues were highlighted through the research process and they are being addressed now through an annual artist’ forum. This forum is building its own links with care staff and health professionals through organised talks and presentations.

Artists are reaching new levels of understanding of the shared nature of their interaction with participants. For a long time many of the artists involved felt they were doing all the ‘giving’ at workshop sessions, but this is changing - many now acknowledge that the process is an ‘exchange’ where conversations and work produced by the participants can and is informing the artists own work and practice. This is being achieved through high quality exchanges and building relationships based on respect and potential. A more recent development enables artists to share their own work and practice with participants and care staff created in response to workshops throughout the year.

In Sligo lead partner’s pool resources and this is increasing the number of commissions for artists and the number of new spaces for the practice of arts and health. The range of professional development opportunities for artists, health professionals and care staff has improved and new innovations, such as open platform events to share experience and discuss practice have emerged.

The person-centered approach to arts and health practice in Sligo is enabling people to contribute in a significant way to meet their own creative and health needs and this in turn is making the task of promoting a wider understanding of the value of arts and health much easier.

The decision by the steering group to develop an agreed policy and strategic framework for arts and health based on common values is impacting in a significant way on arts and health practice in Sligo and was undoubtedly one of its most far reaching and important decisions. The consultation involved in the development of the strategy, coupled with the research and the production of the strategy itself created confidence and a sense of achievement within the local arts and health sector that was inclusive and created shared ownership. This process provided the steering group with the transformative element that won hearts and minds at senior management levels within the HSE and the Sligo Local Authorities.

The launch of HE+ART A Participatory Arts and Health Strategy for Sligo (2007-2012) which was endorsed by the two lead public service partners the HSE and the Sligo Local Authorities remains a high point for the local arts and health sector. It reflects the diverse nature of the sector, its vitality and its strength. It also illustrates the importance of embedding relationships early on and that working together enhances not only the lives of others but also our own.

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Mary McAuliffe is Arts Officer with Sligo County Council. Copies of HE+ART can be obtained from Sarah Leavy, Sligo Arts Department, Sligo County Council, email: The HE+ART pack includes A Participatory Arts & Health Strategy for Sligo 2007-2012; Towards an Arts and Health Partnership for Sligo – Research Report and a DVD celebrating the diversity of arts and health practice in Sligo. For publications relating to The Maugherow Intergenerational Arts Project please see

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