Hannah Hull discusses the paradox of being an arts and wellbeing advocate

First published in ArtsProfessional Issue 253 [May 2012]

Of late I have bumped into a string of fellow art school graduates. In these situations, I am always aware that someone is going to ask that burning and oft-dreaded question: "So, are you still making art?" Did you stick with it? Do you still believe what we all believed? Or have you put that silly idea behind you now?

Well, a lot of them are helping with 'The Art Cause' - helping others to make, promote, and even sell art. They interpret, teach, pack, move, hang art. They spend forty to sixty hours per week helping art to exist. But do they still make their own art? This question becomes particularly poignant for those working within an arts and wellbeing context...

One of these fellow graduates is a recently appointed community and education assistant for an acclaimed gallery. When I enquired as to whether he keeps up his own art practice, he laughed - scoffed, even - and shared a knowing look with his colleague. He doesn't have time, they are run off their feet, my question was unrealistic, out of touch.

This is not an unusual tale: many of us struggle to keep up our own practice whilst trying to make ends meet. But shouldn't those promoting the value of creative practice be nurturing their own creative outlets? How did we end up spending all our time advocating art for wellbeing, whilst being too knackered to make art ourselves?

This is not the only contradiction in the field. I asked a series of outreach practitioners who do manage to maintain their own art practice: "Does your art look like that which you advocate in your outreach work?" The answer I got was, "not often".

Artist and FE tutor Sam Curtis, who works with homeless clients, told me: "My art practice is quite heavily conceptual and I've never been that skilled in making objects, yet my teaching practice involves making and working in traditional techniques."

Artist and Coordinator for older people's projects Jayne Lloyd had a similar story: "Some of the classes I facilitate focus on teaching more traditional arts skills. This sometimes makes me feel like a fake because I do not use the skills I am teaching in my own work. Sometimes I feel that you are confirming people's belief that these skills, such as still life drawing, are all art is."

There seems to be a significant gap between the type of art we present to our participants, and the type of art we personally make. What is interesting about the artists I have interviewed is that their own art work falls within a socially-engaged tradition. For them, there is a very real possibility that their outreach work could actually be art. Think Joseph Bueys, Stephen Willats, The Artist Placement Group. So why isn't this happening?

"I teach to fund my practice. I don't usually reflect on my outreach practice as much as I do on my art practice." Said Isabella Pitisci, an Artist and Arts Engagement Practitioner.

Artist and Coordinator for mental health projects, Jodie Sadler told me: "I would like to see more equal collaborative practice within my outreach practice, with participants making work on the same level as me. But any insight the residents gain about me personally blurs the line of my professional role."

And Jayne Lloyd confirmed: "It can be difficult to take risks in art workshops when you are permanently employed by an organisation. The amount of freedom you have is often dependent on the overall aims of the charity and the level of flexibility in their funding outcomes. If this is too stringent it can restrict the element of discovery in a way I am not used to in my own art practice."

Why are we so willing to transform our understanding of art when working in a wellbeing context? Is 'art and wellbeing' merely the grey area between our art degrees, our financial needs, and current political agendas? Or has art become increasingly subjugated by wellbeing discourse and bureaucracy?

What would happen if we were to take a few lessons from our own practice? Take a risk, show our participants our portfolio, make up the lesson plan after the lesson has happened, and see if being a little more open with them doesn't in fact make our role a whole lot easier.