Developing a strategy to scale up place-based arts initiatives that support mental health and wellbeing: A realist evaluation of ‘Arts for the Blues’

Vicky Karkou, Joanna Omylinska-Thurston, Scott Thurston, Rebecca Clark, Emma Perris, Axel Kaehne, Mark Pearson

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Place-based arts initiatives are regarded as rooted in local need and as having capacity to engage local assets. However, many place-based arts initiatives remain poorly funded and short-lived, receiving little attention on how to scale up and sustain their activities. In this study we make a unique contribution to knowledge about scaling up place-based arts initiatives that support mental health and wellbeing through focusing on the example of ‘Arts for the Blues’, an arts-based psychological group intervention designed to reduce depression and improve wellbeing amongst primary care mental health service users in deprived communities. Methodologically, we used realist evaluation to refine the study’s theoretical assumptions about scaling up, drawing on the lived and professional experiences of 225 diverse stakeholders’ and frontline staff through a series of focus groups and evaluation questions at two stakeholders’ events and four training days. Based on our findings, we recommend that to scale up place-based arts initiatives which support mental health and wellbeing: (i) the initiative needs to be adaptable, clear, collaborative, evidence-based, personalised and transformative; (ii) the organisation has to have a relevant need, have an understanding of the arts, has to have resources, inspiration and commitment from staff members, relevant skillsets and help from outside the organisation; (iii) at a policy level it is important to pay attention to attitude shifts towards the arts, meet rules, guidelines and standards expected from services, highlight gaps in provision, seek out early intervention and treatment options, and consider service delivery changes. The presence of champions at a local level and buy-in from managers, local leaders and policy makers are also needed alongside actively seeking to implement arts initiatives in different settings across geographical spread. Our theoretically-based and experientially-refined study provides the first ever scaling up framework developed for place-based arts initiatives that support the mental health and wellbeing, offering opportunities for spread and adoption of such projects in different organisational contexts, locally, nationally and internationally.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0296178
Pages (from-to)1-31
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number1 January
Early online date2 Jan 2024
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jan 2024


  • arts and health
  • arts therapies
  • plce-based arts initiatives
  • scaling up
  • mental health
  • wellbeing
  • Arts for the Blues
  • Mental Health Services
  • Humans
  • Drive
  • Mental Health

Research Institutes

  • Health Research Institute

Research Centres

  • Research Centre for Arts and Wellbeing


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