A toolkit for a healthier arts sector

The long-term aim of the Arts Wellbeing Collective isn’t just about making individuals more resilient; it’s about developing a stronger, healthier sector.
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Launched last week, the Arts Wellbeing Collective is a major new initiative – spearheaded by Arts Centre Melbourne in partnership with Entertainment Assist – which aims to equip individuals and organisations alike with the tools needed to develop happier, healthier lives.

Though a much-needed response to the confronting issues raised by Entertainment Assist’s recent study into mental health issues in the sector, the original inspiration for the Collective was more personal and immediate, said Arts Centre Melbourne CEO Claire Spencer.

‘We sadly lost one of our team members to suicide in 2015 … and later on that year we had another person who was experiencing some extreme mental health issues which had a very profound impact on him, his family and also the Arts Centre Melbourne team that he worked with,’ said Spencer.

Together with Sonia Lindsay, Arts Centre Melbourne’s Executive Director of Human Resources, Spencer was spurred to act.

‘We said we’ve got to do something about this. We can’t just be picking up the pieces after people fall over; we need to really think about how we can assist people and provide support for people so they’re not getting into that situation in the first place,’ she said.

Read: Major new initiative targets wellbeing in the arts

Thanks to the generous contributions of sponsors including WorkSafe Victoria, Marriner Group, Vic Health, and the Victorian Government, the Arts Wellbeing Collective will be running as a free pilot program this year, and will offer members – including freelancers, individuals and organisations – access to a range of workshops, training opportunities, online resources and special events, all with a focus on developing resilience and wellbeing in artists and arts workers.

The program has been developed in consultation with relevant experts including soprano and provisional psychologist Greta Bradman, and prominent psychologist, Dr Michael Carr-Gregg.

While the statistics regarding mental illness, anxiety and other behaviours in the arts are worrying, Carr-Gregg stressed that this was not unique to the performing arts.

‘Australians generally don’t seem to be managing stress very well. There is buckets of data which I’ll briefly summarise in the workshops showing that if people feel that they’re not coping they’re not actually alone, because the vast majority of Australians aren’t managing,’ he said.

Nonetheless the arts community is extremely vulnerable, Carr-Gregg added.

‘I would put them in the same category as the LGBTIQ community, our Indigenous community, the homeless, the substance abuse community. We’re dealing with massively complex issues. One size doesn’t fit all, there are no silver bullets. It’s a massively complex issue and therefore the response has to be a bit nuanced as well,’ he said.

Aims and outcomes

The focus of the Arts Wellbeing Collective will be on prevention and early intervention of mental health problems, with four key objectives:

  • To improve support services for Victorian arts workers
  • To collate and share information
  • To effect industry cultural change
  • To improve support networks within and between arts organisations

Learn more here

Long-terms goals for the program include reducing the stigma associated with mental illness and creating a more supportive culture. This is what will lead to a healthier and more resilient sector.

The Collective’s workshop program – which will be offered in six regional centres as well as in Melbourne, with videos of each workshop also available online – have been informed by positive psychology, clinical psychology and wellbeing practices, explained Greta Bradman.

‘There’s one workshop about strengthening relationships and sustaining healthy creative communities, using the tools and the strategies that come from psychology around strengthening relationships … from personal relationships to relationships with colleagues, with an aim of helping people create sustainable, long-lasting careers,’ she said.

‘Another one is all about resilience and the idea of building beyond resilience, so looking at the positive psychological idea of flourishing … The use of mindfulness, and I’m a big proponent of mindfulness, can help those of us within the performing arts to be resilient in the short term and help us lead meaningful, fulfilled lives.’

While part of the focus is on equipping individuals with the skills they need to thrive in a sometimes challenging industry, there is also a strong focus on empowering organisations and arts leaders to create long-term change.

‘There is a clear narrative that runs through the entire program: the imperative for organisations and leaders within those organisations to take a leadership role in order to create meaningful change for the people who work within the arts,’ said Bradman.

Carr-Gregg is optimistic about the impact the Arts Wellbeing Collective will have in the coming years.

‘I spoke with my friend Greta yesterday and we were talking about not only taking it national but also international, because these problems are not just unique to the Australian arts community; it’s truly a global problem,’ he said.

‘And yes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. This will take a while. The analogy that I use is that when you think about the dreadful state that we had with the road toll here in Victoria in the Seventies and Eighties, and due to an absolute outcry by the community we’ve been able to bring that down … and that is a marvellous thing but it was not done overnight and it wasn’t one thing. So I see this is the same vein. We’re beginning, we’re starting small, and obviously I hope for great things long term.’

Visit www.artswellbeingcollective.com.au to learn more about the Arts Wellbeing Collective.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts