Can the arts make a difference for young people?

November 30, 2012

Dr Peter Wright

A Murdoch University researcher who investigated participatory arts projects involving young people in marginalised and disenfranchised communities across Australia has found both positive and negative impacts.

Dr Peter Wright from Murdoch University’s School of Education led an international research team which worked closely with Australian arts company Big hART to formulate a framework which can be used to refine future arts projects so that positive impacts and resulting changes can be maximised.

Dr Wright, Professor Barry Down, who is also from Murdoch University, Professor Bradley Haseman from Queensland University of Technology, Scott Rankin from Big hART itself and Mike White from Durham University in the UK identified seven kinds of change that resulted during and from the projects for participants and the communities around them.

These included an improved sense of wellbeing and connectedness within participants’ communities, a positive economic effect and an improvement in capabilities – all animated by arts participation.

“Big hART aims to use their projects as a kind of enabler and works with disadvantaged groups as a form of social justice. But measuring the resulting outcomes of their many projects is not easily quantifiable,” said Dr Wright.

“Our project has been about trying to improve the services offered by Big hART projects so that they can improve their aims of promoting social inclusion, improving cultural capital and health and wellbeing.

“Taken together, with the arts at the centre, our results indicate the power of cultural solutions for complex social issues.”

Dr Wright added that the aim of the project was to help organisations like Big hART develop into becoming more effective for the communities and individuals they collaborate with and support.

“Not everyone gets a job, finds a pathway to better education or has their lives transformed by these projects,” he explained. “They always have to come to an end and then the facilitators leave.

“So it was important to show how arts can be used to make long lasting positive changes in individuals and their communities.”

Funded by an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant, Dr Wright and his team carried out their research into three Big hART projects in Australia and one project by a different organisation in the UK.

The Australian projects took place on the North West coast of Tasmania, the Murray Darling River Basin and in Alice Springs with the researchers interviewing participants, arts workers, the wider community and funders about the projects.

Most of the impacts described for participants were positive such as improved confidence, self image and empowerment. But comments made about some of the projects indicated that long term, the positive impacts of these projects did not always outlast the duration.

One woman who was persuaded to get involved in a crime prevention theatre production at a time when she was abusing drugs and alcohol, told the investigation that the Big hART organisation had changed her life.

“The people at Big hART supported me, they respected me, they never judged me, and they made me confident about my life and my choices,” she said. “These things started to affect me. I started to feel happy about myself. I started to feel important. I questioned my comfort zone.”

Dr Wright and his research team are applying for more funding so that they can investigate the workings and impacts of other arts organisations.

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