The Arts, Well being and Welcoming More People

A Corn Exchange Welcome - Sarah Gregson, our Learning and Participation Manager, reflects on how the Corn Exchange works to welcome more people.

The Arts, Well being and Welcoming More People

It’s always been at the centre of what we do at the Corn Exchange to reflect on how welcoming we are as an organisation. I have just returned to work after a second maternity leave and, both times, I have enjoyed the interesting perspective a year away lends to what we do.

This time I have been really struck by the way we welcome people and how that impacts on the lives of everyone involved. I have just walked through our foyer where I was beckoned over to join our Coffee Companions group and asked about my ‘little ones’, had a new volunteer introduce herself and been joined by one of our other group leaders 'staying around for a bit of social time’. Being amidst this group of artists, staff, volunteers and participants all engaging with each other reminded me that these 'casual’ moments can be as valuable as any of the structured activity we might deliver in creating a sense of welcome and community.

Many of our arts activities like Coffee Companions, Touch to See and Sing 55 are designed to be welcoming social spaces, but people aren’t always aware of the things we are actively doing behind the scenes to continuously improve our ability to welcome people.

We regularly engage in training to help us understand the needs of our audiences and participants and over the last few years our staff have undertaken Mental Health First Aid training, Autism awareness training and attended Dementia Friends information sessions. My first day back in the office this year was a day of Makaton training for many of our front line staff members. We are now exploring how we can use Makaton signing to welcome more people. This starts with letting people know we are trained.

Often such initiatives can leave us wondering what sort of an impact this work has on how welcome people feel. I’ve just had a look at the results from our Learning Centre participant survey for last year and I found that 100% of people who responded said they felt welcome. That’s a good start, but beyond that over 90% felt their ‘creativity was celebrated’ here and I wonder if perhaps that is at the bottom of what our welcome is.

Over the next year the learning and participation team will be looking actively at how to apply our training and offer more activity that removes barriers for people to participate in social and arts activities. Central to that is my new job title: Learning and Participation Manager – Arts and Health. Over the next season our audiences will start to see new opportunities to engage with the arts with a specific well-being focus.

Creative Writing for Well being will launch in 2019 where our course leader Jacqui Smith combines writing with meditation, mindfulness and a creative stimulus. Courses like this will be on offer to anyone who wants to take a proactive and creative approach to their own mental well-being but might bring people to a creative activity for the first time.

Other opportunities will take a more targeted approach, for example our Wellbeing in the Family Course – a 10 session course for families who are looking to build confidence in their ability to meet the challenges of parenting/caring. Families must already be receiving support from an organisation working to support families in West Berkshire and places on the course are by referral only. The focus of an offer like this is the learning and social benefits the participants can gain but it also means we are directly inviting people to come and spend time with us who might never have considered us as a place for them before.

Recently an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts Health released a report and a phrase that really stood out to me was, “Cultural engagement reduces work-related stress and leads to longer, happier lives”. This really is at the heart of any attempt we make to welcome more people and ‘celebrate their creativity’ and having a direct impact on the health of our local community is a great reason to come to work in the morning.

I am currently working to evolve more opportunities like the ones I’ve mentioned in this article but I am also keen to hear from our audiences and potential partners who are interested in exploring the power of the arts to improve well-being and how to welcome more people to take part with us. If you would like to find out more visit our Get Involvedpages on the Corn Exchange website and if you would like to formally discuss a specific area of access, arts and health please email getinvolved@cornexchangenew.co.uk'

Sarah Gregson – Learning and Participation Manager (Arts and Health)

Read the Creative Health Inquiry Report 2017 here