Open Arts – Essex (ARCHIVED)

Open Arts is a community arts and mental health project run as one of the charities managed within the South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (SEPT). Our core activity is the provision of community-based introductory arts courses during which participants are introduced to wider opportunities, including a six- month placement for course graduates at our studio.


  • From start: Yes
  • During process: Yes
  • In evaluation: Yes


  • Peer: Yes
  • Academic: Yes
  • PP Collaborative: Yes

Find out more

What We Did

Open Arts is a community arts and mental health project run as one of the charities managed within the South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (SEPT). The project receives no core NHS funding, and is completely reliant on external grant funding for staff and project costs. Open Arts works in partnership with Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) and is guided by a Steering Group comprising strategic partners from adult community learning, ARU, local authority arts officers, project beneficiaries as well as the Open Arts team. Our core activity is the provision of community-based introductory arts courses during which participants are introduced to wider opportunities, including a six-month placement for course graduates at our studio in Hadleigh. Our central purpose is to support the recovery and wellbeing of people experiencing or at risk of mental ill health in South Essex.
The project is different to other services within SEPT in that it is run in non NHS community venues, facilitated by local artists rather than clinical staff, focussing on art and the practical processes and experiences that surround art, as opposed to focusing on the mental health or disability problem.
“It’s given me a sense of purpose… and a renewed appreciation of socialising and friendships. It also provides a feeling of hope”.

“I couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to come to the studio any more. I certainly wouldn’t have the confidence to go to a ‘normal’ art club or group. This is a safe environment, we all talk about our problems and issues in a very relaxed way, and the thought of having to go back to the usual sort of group therapy would fill me with dread. You never feel as though you’re taking on other people’s problems here, because the atmosphere is so relaxed”.

The project compliments other mental health services as an onward referral route for people who are ready to move on in their recovery, as well as providing a creative outlet that is included as part of service users’ Care Plans. Open Arts courses offer a stepping stone for people who are recovering from a severe bout of mental ill health such as schizophrenia, bi-polar or personality disorder, who are working towards their reintegration into the community. It also offers a creative, social place for people who are isolated, at risk of ill health such as carers or people with mental health problems, or suffering from milder mental health needs such as depressed mood, bereavement or stress
Open Arts aims to offer people the opportunity to move forward as part of society by working together with people from all different backgrounds through a common interest in art. Open arts operates an entirely open referral system. Participants can either be referred by a mental health professional or they can self-refer. No differentiation is made depending on a person’s diagnosis and contact is made with any mental health professionals already working with the client to ascertain the appropriateness of the referral. This open referral system is unique in south Essex mental health services and is a key factor in making Open Arts truly open to everyone who feel they may benefit from our activities.

‘I felt I was treated as an artist, not someone with mental health problems.’

Our service makes a difference by giving people a fresh start in a learning environment. With art as a common focus we capture participants’ interests and give them a taste of the arts as well as ideas which they can take forward for themselves to increase their motivation and well being throughout day to day life.

Our activities include:
– Courses in various arts mediums – Technical skills
– Health and safety – Individual learning plans
– Studio practice – Research and evaluation
– Gallery visits – Guest visits from professionals
– Opportunities for exhibiting – Volunteering
– Accreditation – Professional development for arts tutors

“It means respite time for me. A place to clear my head and just focus on art. I really enjoy meeting other artistic carers, too”.

“It means absolutely everything to me. It’s my lifeline. I love the relaxed atmosphere and the studio manager is amazing. She’s so encouraging and patient. I really can’t say enough good things about her ”!

“It means being able to really concentrate on my artwork. I have no room at home to be creative, so it’s a really valuable opportunity for me to be able to come to the studio to work”.

Additionally, participants are also offered the opportunity to gain academic accreditation. Open Arts offers modules at Gateway Qualifications levels 2 and 3. There is no obligation to take part in this but participants who attend regularly and complete the majority of sessions will successfully gain accreditation. Feedback from participants indicates that this is an important element in motivating and encouraging them to apply for other courses and opportunities. Several participants have moved from our project into higher education courses, setting up their own small businesses and undergraduate study.
‘I used to stay in bed and not open the curtains all day. But since I came to this art course, I now open the curtains because Open Arts has planted the seed of curiosity in me’. – participant

Wider Active Support

We work with many partner organisations, listed below:
Our partners and what they bring to Open Arts:
SEPT, South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, provides integrated care including mental health, learning disability, social care and community services. Providing services across Bedfordshire, Essex, Luton and Suffolk, employ approximately 7000 people and serve a population of 2.5 million. We work with many partner organisations: SEPT, South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, provides integrated care including mental health, learning disability, social care and community services. Providing services across Bedfordshire, Essex, Luton and Suffolk, employ approximately 7000 people and serve a population of 2.5 million.
SE-SURG the South Essex Service User Research Group is a group of current or former mental health service users who carry out research and consultancy for commissioners and providers of mental health services. They have been part of the evaluation process of the Open Arts project from the beginning of the project.
‘ACAVA’ –an arts education charity based in London and Essex, are partners on our current studio project in Hadleigh, Essex. Our studio is one of many within a large arts studio site (Hadleigh Old Fire Station), with lots of local artists working in studios next to us. We will be developing our creative professional development for artists with ACAVA, offering their artists volunteering experience, creative professional development, and they will support our project by providing us with affordable studio and exhibition space, and helping us to promote our project through their large network across the South East of England.
ESSEX County Council Cultural Development Team aims to bring social, educational and economic benefits. This is achieved through partnerships, local enterprise, targeted commissions and community engagement. The team works with tourism, regeneration and health, youth offending, early years and older people. Projects take place in care homes, hospitals, museums, libraries, schools, parks and town centres. Hundreds of volunteers give unpaid hours to support art trails, festivals and many different, diverse events across the county.
The team has a long standing relationship with ACAVA, working in partnership to set up successful studio hubs and an artists network within the county. They also introduced ACAVA to Open Arts having identified common goals and the potential for a productive and mutually beneficial partnership.
Adult Community Learning Essex visit our groups and give Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) to our participants, including signposting on to community learning courses or volunteering. ACL Essex are also on our Steering Group.
KCA in Thurrock offer support to people in recovery from drug and alcohol misuse. We work in partnership with KCA to recruit their hard to reach clients, by running courses and exhibitions at their venue.
Essex County Council, Southend Borough Council and Thurrock Council: Open Arts work with local authority arts officers on Rochford, Brentwood and Thurrock Art Trails. We also work in partnership with local authorities, supporting service users to access Personal Budgets to attend our courses. Each local authority also sits on our Steering group.





Planning our service:
We involve our participants in the development of our project in a number of ways including through our Steering Group, planning meetings, Artist supervision groups and volunteer development sessions.
The Steering Group supports planning in strategic aspects of project development including partnerships, sustainability, funding, projects and research. The meeting minutes are shared with all partners including the SEPT Executive Team, who the project ultimately reports to.
Our planning meetings involve participants, volunteers, artists and the project manager getting together to plan projects and special events. For participants and volunteers who wish to work further on planning their individual learning pathway we offer accreditation at level 3, which includes learning outcomes focussed on taking roles of responsibility in project planning, delivery and evaluation.
With regard to the Open Arts studio, a members’ group meet with quarterly members’ meetings.
Running Our Service:
We consult our participants on an ongoing basis through our courses and the studio. They input into the design of the course programmes and exhibitions.
Open Arts volunteers play a key part in the running of the project as a link between staff and participants. Most of our volunteers are people who have attended an Open Arts course, and want to further develop their skills in supporting the facilitation of groups and events. We also have volunteers who are arts graduates, who are keen to learn skills and experience in arts and health group work as part of their professional development. We have a number of volunteer roles (including Arts Assistants and Support Artists) who help to run our 12 week courses, take groups on gallery visits and support groups in setting up exhibitions. Their peer support enhances the additional pastoral care that is required for our groups. Similarly, we encourage group participants to support each other, share ideas, talk about their artwork.
There is also participant involvement through social media with Facebook and Twitter pages. You can view these at and Participants take part in regular postings, sharing images of their artworks and any news, ideas or comments they have about each others’ work. We envisage this developing in a way that increases the capacity of Open Arts, by offering contact for participants, volunteers and arts tutors in between art classes, and after their course has finished, to give a continued space for contact and support.
“It’s taken me back to a world I used to know very well, before I became a full-time carer. It’s time purely for me, absolute headspace. I love it here”.

Looking Back/Challenges Faced


We have found there is a need for improvement to our project by spending more time in supporting and developing our participants in their follow up options. We have begun to do this through our studio, by supporting more participant-led work, to allow for participants to shape the project as they feel it should be shaped, and to keep in touch, developing their own initiatives and groups, after they have completed their 12 week course with us. Through the studio we aim to offer this extended support.
Our project has been a constant evolving process adapting to the requirements of funders each year and meeting outcomes. Developing the project and ensuring that we deliver a creative and positive outcome for each of our participants with follow on options in place allows us to continue to be a successful project with south Essex.

The very nature of mental health can at times be challenging, with a mixed group everyone has different needs and abilities, by offering mental health first aid and awareness and professional boundaries training to artists and volunteers we ensure that everyone is equipped to manage any situation should it arise. We also have regular meetings, feedback to referrers and keep all lines of communication open between participants, referrers and course leaders.
Funding is an ongoing challenge. Within our current economic climate, health and social care funding cuts mean priority has to be given to services working with service users with a higher level of need at crisis point, whilst at the other end of the scale, community learning services have also experienced cut backs meaning that the wide group of people that we work with are experiencing cut backs on either side. This means an increasing need for innovative, cost effective approaches to mental health prevention and recovery. With financial pressures on individuals, these approaches need to be affordable and accessible for participants. Many people with mental health difficulties are on a low income and have limited access to transport, so they need activities to be local.
With a national average cost of an adult acute ward hospital bed being £2233 per week and the cost of, for example, consultant psychiatric outpatient care being £55 per hour, and one third of psychiatric outpatient appointments being DNA (did not attend), the cost of mental ill health to the NHS is significantly high. In comparison, the cost per person to attend one of our courses is average £20 per hour, typical attendance 65%, with proven significant improvements in wellbeing and social inclusion for participants (Waiting List Trial 2011) after just one 12 week course. Our project is excellent value for money, effective for the beneficiaries and can potentially reduce dependency on costly NHS services.


We have four peer support groups which have grown from their participation on the Open Arts project and taken their ideas forward. These include Loose Screws, an amateur dramatics society whose founder members have all participated in Drama and Arts courses provided by Open Arts, who, with the support of Open Arts have gained funding and charitable organisation. Also 2Create, a self-governed arts group for graduates of the Open Arts programme once upon completion of the optional 6-month Hadleigh Old Fire Station (HOFS) studio placement.
Our pool of freelance artists that run the studio and our courses increases each year, with opportunities for volunteers to facilitate sessions as part of their accreditation.
Our website , and our social media sites keep everyone up to date with the project.
Each participant, volunteer and artist is an advocate for the Open Arts project.


SE-SURG research into Open Arts in 2011 showed that all participants indicated that they had enjoyed the course and reported that their art skills had developed. The great majority (91%) indicated that their motivation to do art work and other activities had increased. The majority also said their confidence had increased (86%) and that they felt more positive about things (82%). Just over three-quarters also felt their relationships with other people had improved as a result of their course.
Open Arts has been addressing this over its seven years of service delivery with academic partners at ARU (Anglia Ruskin University) and SE-SURG (the South Essex Service User Research Group) formal evaluation has been conducted, using mixed method evaluation: quantitative evaluation using approved measures in social inclusion and mental wellbeing. The wellbeing measure is the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well Being Scale (WEMWBS) and the social inclusion measure is the Social Inclusion Scale (SIS). Both studies have research governance approval. As well as qualitative methods via focus groups. Each piece of evaluation concludes in a report with observations and recommendations, which are taken on board with the steering group and project team, to inform and improve the practice of the project.
Evaluation conducted has included:
• First year evaluation
• Second year evaluation – published in Arts and Health Journal
• Waiting list controlled trial – published in RSPH
• First year studio evaluation – published in Journal for Applied Arts and Health
Open Arts and ARU are currently working on evaluation of a two year lottery funded project where we are tracking the longer term benefits of our work with three and six month follow up surveys, as well as year on group interviews. Open Arts research has been presented at Winnipeg and Minnesota, and has been shared nationally through the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing, and the British Association of Art Therapists.
The entire range of feedback that we receive from these formal evaluations and directly from our participants shows the huge impact that our work has on the mental health and well-being of those who take part. Open Arts not only helps foster an interest in art but allows participants to learn skills which enable them to be part of a community they otherwise felt disconnected from. As one of our participants aptly said “This should be permanent. It should be across the board, countrywide, a permanent fixture. It should grow.”


Open Arts is a member for the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing, and is well connected with arts and health organisations throughout the Eastern region. Open Arts also has links with the British Association of Art Therapists. All research and evidence is shared with these organisations as well as through publications in arts, health and social care journals and within Anglia Ruskin research facility network.
We will welcome other third sector organisations and NHS trusts to take the learning, apply and rollout the project themselves.
Project updates are disseminated locally through arts and community networks, throughout WLMHT, WLCCG, SEPT and through local authority arts officers. We will use our links with local press and across our social media networks to showcase specific highlights and good news stories.
Open Arts has a social media presence, through Facebook and Twitter and a web presence through the websites
Participants take part in regular postings on our social media sites, sharing images of their artworks and any news, ideas or comments they have about each others’ work. We plan to develop and increase the capacity of the project, by offering contact for participants, volunteers and arts tutors in between art classes, and after the project has finished, to give a continued space for contact and support.

Is there any other information you would like to add ?

The studio was established to provide an opportunity for Open Arts introductory course completers to continue their art making independently with professional support. The evaluation covered the first 12 months of the studio’s operation from January to December 2013, during which two cohorts of introductory course completers completed placements at the studio.
Evaluation methods

Studio members completed questionnaires including measures of mental wellbeing and social inclusion at baseline and follow-up, with additional questions relating to participant characteristics at baseline and experience of their studio placement at follow-up. A focus group discussion with members of the first cohort explored experiences in more detail and elicited information relating to further development of the studio.
Responses to the questionnaire and to the focus group discussion indicated that the studio was enabling members to pursue their art making independently.
Mental wellbeing and social inclusion scores improved significantly over the studio placement. Correlations between improvements in scores with questions at follow up about whether participants felt more positive and whether their relationship with others had improved as a result of their studio placement were in a positive direction, although they did not reach significance.
All ratings of enjoyment and gains in art skills, confidence and motivation were positive. Over 90% of participants also reported feeling more positive about things and that their wellbeing had been maintained, and over 80% felt that their relationships with other people had improved as a result of the studio placement.
Open-ended comments on the follow-up questionnaire and focus group participants’ responses supported the quantitative results, with gains in wellbeing and social inclusion described by many participants.






Share this page: