As part of a broader emphasis on addressing the ‘social determinants’ of health and wellbeing, health promotion agencies in Australia and elsewhere have increasingly turned to arts participation as a strategy for reducing social isolation. However, research on the relationships between arts participation and its outcomes in terms of individual and community wellbeing has been undermined by conceptual and methodological weaknesses in the studies conducted hitherto. This paper presents some of the findings emerging from a broadly conceived, four-year, multi-method study conducted across four diverse local communities in Victoria, Australia. In particular it focuses on insights gained from the use of photonarrative techniques to explore the lived experiences of people whose involvement in local communities is seen as being problematic. This is complemented by some surprising outcomes of a survey of people who participated in a range of community celebrations and events. The paper shifts the focus from specific outcomes of arts-based interventions in community life to an understanding of how arts participation can help people negotiate new forms of engagement in complex and changing local communities. It argues for a more nuanced understanding of contemporary community life in the context of globalization and a deeper understanding of the relationships between inclusion and exclusion.
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