Breaking barriers

Errol Francis, 10.06.2014
Mental health, museums and public programming
For years now, museums have been seeking to diversify their audiences by promoting greater inclusion, participation and access.

Museums have not only had to achieve the tricky cultural balancing act of developing and conserving their collections and supporting the pursuit of excellence, but also increasingly focusing on social objectives. 

These social objectives have mainly concerned levels of access and participation, but there are now increasing calls for arts and culture to address mental health issues relating to wellbeing. 

The pursuit of these goals has inevitably raised that age-old objection of “instrumentalism”, the debasement of art by using it to achieve social objectives rather than artistic excellence.

The Anxiety Arts Festival, which is taking place across London throughout June, has been developed within this policy context, and we have had to negotiate the difficult path of curating a festival that does not fall into either crude instrumentalism or exclusive cultural elitism.

The festival has sought to build relationships that promote participation and inclusion and take education work out of the backroom of museums and galleries.

We have tried to achieve this by collapsing the barriers separating different types of programming – particularly between education, learning and public programming, and curatorial practice. 

An example of how we have tackled this is the new collaborative residency, conceived by Gasworks, Bethlem Gallery & Museum and Anxiety Arts Festival 2014, to support a project engaging with the discourses that surround art within psychiatric contexts and the history of how various concepts of anxiety have been understood.

We made an international open call to artists for experimental and context-specific proposals to work with an artist connected to Bethlem Royal Hospital (part of South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust) who has experienced mental health difficulties.

The Bethlem artist, whom we must refer to as Patient X for confidentiality reasons, will work with Berlin-based artist Christina Kral to investigate the idea of personal sanctuaries and acts of (self-) care within the everyday. 

The joint work by the patient and the artist will culminate in a public event to be held at ORTUS Learning and Event Centre at the Maudsley Hospital towards the end of the festival.

In a similar spirit of collaboration we have worked with the education and learning team at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) on a programme entitled the Anatomy of Anxiety, which includes a screening of Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film Fish Tank depicting the experiences of fifteen-year-old Mia as she negotiates the people, places and animals in her life. 

The programme at NPG also includes the contribution of film historians and artists exploring the idea of anxiety through portraiture.

Similarly, in collaboration with Peckham Platform we have commissioned the artist Kathrin Böhm, winner of the 2014 Create award, to create an installation entitled Money Distribution Machine and Other Useful Contraptions. 

The installation is a response to the fesitval’s theme of anxiety and arose from workshops and conversations between Böhm and service users at Three Cs, an organisation for people with learning disabilities and mental health challenges on Rye Lane, Peckham.

These are just a few examples of how we have approached the issues of participation, access and inclusion in the festival: by trying to collapse the divisions that demarcate the outside and inside of the museum, and breaking down the differences between education, exhibition and curatorial programming – bringing education and learning activities to the front of the museum. 

A selection of projects from the Anxiety Arts Festival London 2014 will go on tour to other cities in 2015, starting in Nottingham.

Errol Francis is the director of Anxiety Arts Festival London 2014


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13.06.2014, 11:39
Museums can also install technology which can help people with anxiety or related problems so they can still enjoy exhibitions - soft, trance-like music. However, if exhibitions use noises which may cause problems, museums should be able to provide ways which can help visitors to avoid these problems - headphones or alternative routes and given literature connected to the section they have had to miss.