A depiction of the Finnish mythological character, Ilmatar, goddess of the wind.

From the egg of the duck grows the world

“We know we can reduce feelings of anxiety with pottery sculpting, create social networks in choirs, boost self-confidence with photography, ease back pain by dancing and help brains recover from surgery with music, but that´s just a part of the whole story.” The ‘whole story’ that Lauri Savisaari, Director for Culture and Education in Tampere, Finland, is referring to is the complex relation between culture and wellbeing, the effects that your cultural experiences can have on your health and quality of life.

This is a relation that each city handles differently, whether through social prescriptions for art walks in London, the ‘culture vitamins’ programme in Denmark’s Aarhus that aims to use cultural events to motivate people to find employment, or Barcelona’s work tackling gender inequality through culture.

During the Eurocities Culture Forum 2021, a year when health is on everyone’s minds, this link between culture and wellbeing was the number-one question for cities.

Culture is a way to reduce inequality.
— Lauri Savisaari

In Tampere, the restorative capacity of culture is approached in the broadest sense. “Cultural wellbeing is not just a method of promoting health,” Savisaari says, “nor is it just a method used in social and healthcare services. Culture is a way to reduce inequality, it is an organisational competitiveness factor, employee wellbeing and commitment factor and a way to get our voices heard among many other things.”

Art is the best medicine

The narrowest sense is also important, however. There is a direct link between culture and health, which many cities are keen to exploit. In Aarhus, people who are unemployed or taking a break from work due to stress, anxiety or depression are offered an interesting way to get back on track psychologically.

Aarhus’s ‘culture vitamins’ programme offers them a dose of local cultural events, from shows and performances to museums and galleries. After this experience, the city polled participants and found that half of those taking part in it felt that their experience would help them better handle a new job, while eight out of ten said they were feeling better as a result of the exposure to cultural events.

In London, doctors might actually prescribe a cultural experience. The practice of social prescription, means that if you report to your doctor with, for example, feelings of intense pressure or anxiety, she might prescribe a stroll around the Quantum Clouds, an artwork by Anthony Gormley. It’s part of a very new walk called ‘the line’,” explains Clare Lovett, Principal Projects Development Officer in London, “It’s the first dedicated modern contemporary art walk. It’s being used in wellbeing walks, and you are able to be socially prescribed to come and visit a lot of ‘the line’ public art.”

©Marisa Sias
You are able to be socially prescribed to come and visit a lot of The Line public art.
— Clare Lovett

The flip side of this direct art/health relation is that it can facilitate artists, who are often forced to endure precarious work conditions, to find employment in the health sector. Artists can support people at critical moments of transition, and can ensure that elderly and people with disabilities get to enjoy exposure to art and creativity.

Art for art’s sake?

Art can help develop confidence, dignity and new skills, creating new links between worlds – but is it right to treat art as a tool, rather than something valuable in its own right? According to the speakers at Eurocities Culture Forum 2021, you can do both.

“Art should always first be art,” Savisaari insists, “and after that we can debate what kind of social, economic, ecological, physical or mental impacts it has. Cultural wellbeing arises from the atmosphere of inclusion, agency and appreciation that we can experience together and alone with art.”

Art should always first be art.
— Lauri Savisaari

As with any subject, however, how you talk about it should depend on who you’re talking to. “Of course, within the context of public funding,” Savisaari confesses, “the somewhat instrumental use of art and culture is also relevant in the eyes of the city officials, at least when we are arguing for better resources for art and culture we need to have these instrumental arguments in those discussions with city higher officials and the City Council.”

Such arguments are hardly facetious. In Stockholm, for instance the culture sector lost 31% of the city’s turnover in 2020. Perhaps this is unsurprising as 20% of Stockholm’s local companies work in the culture sector, demonstrating that it can be a very profitable area if it is well cultivated and creatives are treated with dignity while they’re still trying to get on their feet.

Dr Pia Houni, CEO at Mad House Helsinki, who spoke at the Culture Forum, argued for the importance of culture for wellbeing and health, and for economic improvement, but in her view there is an issue with the way the economy is understood.

“Art helps the economy, but we need a broader understanding of the economy as something that should include wellbeing, an ‘economy of happiness,’” she said.

Access to culture

Many cities have worked through the pandemic to make culture available through digital means. This was a response to necessity, and it quickly made clear the digital divide in our cities: many people cannot, for economic reasons or due to a lack of skills and training, cannot access cultural offers that are provided online.

However, there were equally a number of people for whom the digital distribution opened up the city’s cultural offer for the first time. The digital approach can improve the accessibility of art and culture, bringing them to people who otherwise would not be able to attend events, whether due to disability, location or time issues.

In Barcelona, this time element of access is a focus of the city’s strategy since 2003, explains Sonia Ruiz, Director of Gender and Time Policies at Barcelona City Council. According to Ruiz, the city wants to ensure an approach to time “that aims at creating a fairer and healthier society and which is also more in harmony with nature.”

How does time relate to culture? Those with work or family responsibilities that take up a lot of their time will not have much of it available for culture – this means that the city needs to provide flexible access, for example with opening or performance times that suit the busy parent.

Many people will not be lucky enough to find themselves living next to a cultural venue like a theatre or museum, so commuting time will prevent them from availing of such spaces. For Barcelona, the solution is to bring such events to them, out of their spaces, ensuring that there is a good distribution of opportunities to enjoy culture throughout the city.

Supporting our support

As culture supports people in cities, so cities need to support culture. The basic support necessary is of course a financial one of making funding directly available to artists and creatives.

However, there is a myriad of other ways of creating support. In Chemnitz, Germany, the city helps creatives to digitise their offer, allowing those who are not so tech-minded to benefit from new audiences and more seamless distribution.

In Tampere, the city facilitates networking between cultural organisations to build synergies and exchange knowledge and experience. The city also invests a lot in commissioning community projects, paying creatives to activate chosen neighbourhoods and demographics.

Another type of support that cities can provide, as in the case of Liverpool’s ‘Without Walls’  programme or Stockholm’s ‘Re-start’  programme, is just letting the general public know what is on offer. These two large-scale communication campaigns encourage local people to engage with arts and culture and provide information about what is happening in their area.

World egg

Eurocities Culture Forum 2021 presented Europe’s cities with a performance from the host city, Tampere musicians Petra Käppi and Joonas Ojajärvi, playing ‘Sotkan munasta maailma’/ ‘From the egg of the duck grows the world.’ In this Finnish creation myth, a duck laid an egg in the lap of the wind goddess – the lower half of the egg became the Earth, the upper dome the sky, the yolk the sun and so on.

Our brains are alive when music is on.
— Dr Houni

Music is a special case of the relation between culture and health; as Dr Houni put it, “our brains are alive when music is on.” The world egg is also a good metaphor for this relation – by incubating culture with the right conditions, whole new worlds of possibility can emerge.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer