The most potent contribution that this new field of arts practice can make is the revelation of just how creative community health can be.
Arts Development on Community Health, A Social Tonic, Mike White 2009
Mike White, who died at home yesterday after a long illness, was a pioneer in community-based arts and health. His ideas will continue to influence the field for many years. He was working an as arts officer for Gateshead Council when I met him. His imaginative, creative projects recognised the real difference that participation in the arts could make to people’s lives. Sometimes that was very concrete, as in the campaigns against heart disease, but more typically it was a subtle understanding of how wellbeing affects the experience of life and therefore its outcomes.Later he went on to work at Durham University, where he was central to the establishment of the Centre for Medical Humanities and where I was sometimes able to participate in the meetings of friends and collaborators he organised.
Mike’s vision was not therapeutic. It was rooted in a passion for social justice and a belief that everyone deserves the best that life can give. It was rooted too in his character and his spirit. He was a deeply kind and generous person who always had time to share with others. He was unassuming and resolutely unpretentious, always more interested in other people and the outcomes of the work than in recognition of his own contribution.
Today, his many friends in the UK, Australia and elsewhere will be deeply saddened by his passing. I salute a friend and fellow spirit with a heavy heart. But there is some comfort in knowing what he contributed and knowing too that the people who share his ideas and values will continue to work for healthier, creative communities in which more people can flourish and make the most of life.
If you want to know more about Mike, there are a couple of previous posts about his work on the Regular Marvels site: Angels and Chalkie’s Demon Diary. The second piece is about the all-too brief blog in which he wrote about his illness with characteristic elegance and humility. There’s an interview he gave online, and some of his papers here; other resources to be found with a search engine.
But the best understanding of Mike’s work can be found in his book, Arts Development on Community Health, A Social Tonic. It’s a good investment for anyone interested in community arts.