In this series, our Director Ben chats with leaders in the culture and care sectors to discover more about their inspiration, influences, projects, and the future of arts in health. This week: Tim Joss.

Who are you, what do you do, and why do you do it?

I’m a social and cultural entrepreneur, and I am founder and Chief Executive of Aesop (arts enterprise with a social purpose). Aesop works with the UK’s world-class arts sector. We believe the arts can transform people’s lives and have the potential to help solve social problems and improve people’s health and wellbeing. We take society’s challenges as the starting point, and incubate evidence-based, cost-effective, sustainable solutions which use high quality arts. Our initial focus is on health. You ask why I do it. I am astounded at a prevailing health sector view that the arts are fluff, nice-to-have and a leisure activity just for evenings and weekends. The arts’ power is extraordinary. The NHS will have better care and will have saved money if it harnesses that power.

Favourite project you’ve ever worked on?

The first year I took full charge of the Bath International Music Festival was 1995. The theme was ‘Utopias – past and present visions of the good society’. Nelson Mandela had been released the previous year and we featured 60 artists from South Africa. Mandela sent his arts minister to deliver a message to an audience of 25,000 at the festival’s opening night celebrations. It included this:

We in South Africa have had our own vivid experience of both oppressive and liberating utopias. For many years, millions of our people suffered immensely as a result of the oppressive policies that were intended to create the utopia of an apartheid society. Opposition to this oppressive utopia was kept alive only by the liberating utopia of a free and non-racial democratic society… Visions of a good society – whether it is oppressive or liberating – always find expression in the cultural life of societies…

Who is your biggest influence and why?

My adorable godmother, Pearl. She was Principal Viola in the Sadler’s Wells Orchestra and played in the world premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. She was my first piano teacher. Three things made her particularly special to me. She made picking up an instrument and playing music the most natural thing in the world; anyone could learn and discover the joys of music-making. She could teach you so much but never needed a harsh, critical word to achieve it. And she saw music’s potential as a force for good for each of us and in society – and she lived her life that way.

February saw a very successful Aesop Arts in Health Conference & Showcase at the Southbank Centre. What was your highlight, and were there any unexpected outcomes?

We targeted health decision-makers and showcased 24 leading arts in health programmes. A key objective was to challenge the arts-as-fluff idea. The 24 presentations and the presence and endorsement of the Secretary of State for Health and Chairs of NHS England and Arts Council England were key. One of my highlights was trending on Twitter for seven hours and the NHS’s National Clinical Director for Innovation tweeting that the event was a ‘game-changer’. One unexpected outcome was an invitation from the Eastern Academic Health Science Network to mount a version for the east of England.

At Paintings in Hospitals we're currently planning for the next three years up to our 60th anniversary in 2019. But what is next for Aesop?

We think there are two big, unaddressed challenges for realising the arts’ potential in health. The first is insufficient continuing professional development – to support the arts sector in understanding the health sector better, be more responsive to patients’ and health professionals’ needs, and be more effective partners; and to help health professionals understand and make effective use of the many ways the arts can contribute. We have a developing partnership with Canterbury Christ Church University Faculty of Health (including the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health). The second is the failure of arts in health programmes to ‘go to scale’. I start from a simple premise. If an arts intervention improves health cost-effectively, then all patients who could benefit should have access to that programme. There is a branch of philanthropy called venture philanthropy which helps charity programmes grow and go to scale. Aesop wants to create the first arts and health venture philanthropy fund.


Aesop and Ben are both on Twitter: @AesopHealth, @HighStreetBen