The arts and health sector is being mapped out by potential funders using a tight definition. Creative Scotland sees this activity as being led by professional artists, with explicit artistic and health/wellbeing objectives, and designed to improve health and wellbeing. What activities could be missed by this definition? In particular what arts, culture, health and wellbeing outputs emerge when none of these terms are targeted or defined.

This question is something I’ve been thinking as this year’s celebration of the 10th anniversary of the art and mental health exhibition I volunteer for, the biggest of its kind in Scotland and have written about it before. Our celebration has led to many discussions of what makes this exhibition special, particularly in the process of commissioning our anniversary film. Having no cultural hierarchy means there is no criteria on what counts as art. The planning group is not artist-led, it is lived experience led, and the exhibition is not concerned with improving health and wellbeing. The facilitating organisation is also not arts-led. These characteristics leave the exhibition outside Creative Scotland’s definition.

However, the exhibition could provide a range of interesting insights into the arts and mental health. For example, the Baring Foundation who also see this sector in terms of artist-led activities has 20 questions to develop their funding programme for Arts and Mental Health. The exhibition could provide many interesting answers to these questions such as how it has ended up being valued and funded by the NHS for an eight-year time frame and the process and benefits of a collective advocacy approach. For this anniversary year, the exhibition has described its story and ethos within the exhibition to give insight into how this kind of activity can emerge.

The activist roots of the exhibition, to give people with lived experience of mental health issues a space talk about whatever they want, provides a dimension to arts and mental health that is outside the Baring Foundation’s questions and focus on participatory art and Creative Scotland’s mapping. This ethos of giving a platform to people gives the exhibition a strong and diverse display of political statements from climate change, Brexit to LGBTI+ rights. Intrinsically by giving a voice to whatever people want to say, alongside these activist voices in the exhibition, are everyday moments, fleeting joy, jolts of loneliness, beloved pets, and streetscapes. This is what I find unique and exciting about the exhibition, that activism and everyday moments and life in between intimately co-exist. The whole of humanity, in its intersectionality, in experiences from shattering events, life journeys to the mundane can be found here. The exhibition by not being ‘about mental health’ shows more vividly what ‘mental health’ means to people and its multiple dimensions.

Whatever your definition of art, artistic quality or use for art can be found in this exhibition. There is beauty and challenges, intense emotional experiences, artistic excellence and innovation. There is space where communities can have their own creative voices recognized (Kelly, 1985). Lives have been transformed and preventive health and wellbeing effects have been seen, a community has been created, barriers to participation tackled and a stand has been taken against the marginalization of voices. Through not being ‘about the arts’ by having no criteria for artworks, a space is created for the power of the arts to fully emerge in all its diversity: for surviving, healing, connecting, communicating, living and for creating social change.

The exhibition’s positive potency comes from creating its own space outside sectors. The arts and mental health sector could be enriched by engaging with arts and mental health activities beyond its borders to see what flourishes in an ethos-led space without definitions and objectives.



Kelly, O. (1985) ‘In Search of Cultural Democracy’, Arts Express. Available at: (Accessed: 16 May 2022).