GP’s waiting rooms and hospital corridors aren’t generally designed as welcoming environments, and it’s a lucky person that isn’t familiar with the special NHS palette of greige – liberally applied across doctors’ offices and health centres all over the UK. But while there’s definitely a way to go, there are signs that we’re waking up to the ways art and design can improve things.
Arts organisation Vital Arts – which sits within the Barts Health NHS Trust – is at the forefront of this. Charitably-funded, it runs a hospital arts programme that commissions new, site-specific works by the likes of Morag Myerscough and Chris Haughton, as well as a participation programme that brings dance, music and literature and creative projects directly to patients across five east London hospitals.
“Although some patients might not regularly engage with culture,” she told CR, “it’s really important that the art we are bringing into this public context is of exceptional quality; it should be nourishing, mind-opening. It could even be life-changing, if you consider that some people might be looking at art for the first time – for an extended period of time.
Top image: Sakura by Darren Almond, from a series of artworks in the ceilings of the Linear Accelerator Suites in Barts Cancer Centre; above: cartoon by Tom Gauld for the Cystic Fibrosis Unit at Barts Hospital. Both commissioned by Vital Arts
“They might be seated in the same space for over an hour, or return repeatedly for regular treatment, so hospitals should be taking the opportunity to provide significant cultural encounters, if they are making art available to the public. The art which we bring to these municipal buildings should reflect the most interesting of contemporary artistic practice.”
For years, Roberts has been talking about the transformative power of creativity, but always with a caveat – it has to be done carefully and intelligently, and by someone who understands the environment and the artists. She believes art should be presented to people without compromise, but with context in mind. This means much of the burden falls on the curator, and Roberts sees no difference between working on a major show for a museum or gallery and a commission for a hospital – although admittedly there’s less glamour with the NHS. Vital Arts itself now has a collection of over 2,000 objects, that Roberts says is worth in excess of several million.
“More and more, arts and health is becoming recognised, and the field is growing,” Roberts told CR. “I regularly give conferences and lectures, and many within universities, where I have noticed an increase in the addition of arts and health as a topic of study. All hospitals could benefit from the inclusion of trained, experienced curators, that keep a close eye on the landscape of contemporary art, and have a deep professional engagement with the industry, but who, critically, also understand the particularities of the clinical setting, and the specific context of commissioning art within hospitals.”
Working in these kinds of environments poses its own challenges. There’s issues of hygiene and longevity to be considered, as well as the pressure of finding the money to fund each commission. Roberts believes there will always be disparaging opinions on creativity’s ability to boost wellbeing, but her answer is to keep making great work that transforms patients’ experiences. “Art doesn’t change the diagnosis, but it can really help alleviate the stress – which is compounded in a highly clinical space that’s cluttered and disorganised—or harshly sterile,” she explains.
One example can be found at Barts Cancer Centre, where a series of back-lit photographs embedded into the ceilings greet patients receiving radiotherapy. Roberts says the response has been positive, with patients asking to return to specific rooms to spend more time with a particular piece, or requesting to move through different rooms to see all the artworks.
Another popular commission was Ruth Ewan’s set of flash cards of historic imagery and stories, created based on interviews with older patients on their experience growing up in the East End. “Several people came through, looking at the artworks as we were installing, saying, ‘I remember this place’ and ‘my mother worked there’ and engaging with flash cards before they were even on the walls,” says Roberts. “They were crowding around and engaging with it, and it was extraordinary in that way. We have a file of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of emails and texts and posts (we used to get letters) from people telling us that artwork we have brought to the hospitals have changed their entire experience.”
Illustrator Jonny Glover has also played a role in improving the patient experience, having worked with several east London hospitals. He believes it’s essential for artwork to reflect the audience, but also that artists embrace humour and character to disarm the seriousness of the environment. Getting patients involved in the artwork’s creation has also been key to its success. For a recent project for the Coborn Centre for Adolescent Mental Health, Glover ran sessions with patients, drawing them into the ideas process.
VIcky’s Place by set designer Cecilia Carey – used by cancer patients for wig and prosthetic bra fittings, commissioned by Vital Arts
Morag Myerscough artwork, created for the Royal London Hospital and commissioned by Vital Arts
“The first idea behind it was to make the entrance areas bright, positive and hopeful,” he told CR. “And maybe something that could make it look like a welcoming, friendly place, rather than a sterile environment – so people might feel a little more comfortable there, and that they were going to be looked after.
“The young patients were asked to come up with what they wanted to see on the walls, so they took a little bit of ownership over what happened, and they loved it,” he continues. “They started drawing, coming up with loads of ideas, and the theme that came out of it was the idea of discovery and a journey of working through stuff. I’ve not done that before, where I’ve got people actively involved with the artwork, but it had a really interesting effect. Rather than them being like, ‘Ok, there’s this strange guy here painting on the walls’ – and some of them can feel a bit upset with strangers – it made them feel ownership, and more comfortable with the idea of what was happening.”
The work is part of a wider effort to improve health environments, says Glover, who has several other NHS projects on the go, and describes them as a really good client. “A lot of these old NHS buildings are pretty horrid,” he adds. “You arrive and you’re in a horrible waiting room … and that aspect of making it a bit nicer, maybe involving people that are there, makes it more homely, and more about creating something together. There’s a community aspect which is really strong. I think people are slowly cottoning onto the benefits of it.”
Illustrations by Chris Haugton for the Royal London Hospital’s children’s ward
The financial issues of the NHS are well publicised, so it’s perhaps unrealistic to envision a future where art, design and creativity is incorporated into every single doctor’s office or hospital from the start, but the work of organisations like Vital Arts and artists like Glover are heartening, to say the least. And Glover has a ready rebuttal for the cynics among us.
“I’d say maybe it’s not for everyone, but it definitely is for some people,” he says. “If I go to a clinic that looks like someone’s cared for it, I feel better. If someone’s taking care of the space they’re running, it makes sense they’ll take care of you.”
vitalarts.org.uk; jonnyglover.comThe post Can creativity make us feel better? appeared first on Creative Review.