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The Arts in Hospitals

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Think about arts in hospitals, and what springs to mind? Maybe a dim memory of walking past (but not looking at) anodyne prints on a whitewashed corridor wall; of hearing (but not listening to) unobtrusive music while you wait for your appointment; of passing (but not studying) a sculpture or statue on your way back to the car park. And for many of us, that might be about it.

The arts, though, have quietly played an important role in hospitals for centuries – even as far back as Renaissance Italy, as art critic and historian Richard Cork documents in his definitive book The Healing Presence of Art: A History of Western Art in Hospitals. Contemporary studies have shown that while the power of the arts is to a certain extent intangible and unmeasurable, art indisputably serves as a powerful and beneficial influence on the health and well-being of hospital patients, visitors and staff.

Today, art in hospitals takes many forms – paintings, murals and other visual artworks commissioned for specific hospital environments; concerts, performances and temporary exhibitions presented on hospital premises; hands-on creative engagement programmes for patients and staff; and much more, from informing architecture to inspiring the design of healing spaces and gardens. In England, a good deal of this work is initiated by members of the National Arts in Hospitals Network (NAHM), some of whose members are co-creators of Our National Health Stories.

But how did we get here – and where might we go next?

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A group of 3 people are standing at a round table smiling. The poet Pat Winslow is seated at the table writing.
Staff at OUH Cowley creating poems with poet Pat Winslow

The presence of art in hospitals dates back hundreds of years. However, it’s not an unbroken history, at least not in England. In Victorian times, the arts were used not to provide cultural salve for patients but to elevate hospitals’ social status – and, ideally, to raise money for their work. Jenny Lind, the so-called ‘Swedish Nightingale’, was among the 19th-century artists who performed benefit concerts in aid of the Hospital for Consumption & Diseases of the Chest, which eventually became the Royal Brompton Hospital.

It was really after the Second World War – indeed, shortly after the founding of the NHS – that the arts began to find a more secure foothold in the English healthcare system. Paintings in Hospitals was founded in 1959 by Sheridan Russell, an almoner at the National Hospital for Neurology & Neurosurgery in London, who established a collection of artworks that could be loaned out to hospitals for the benefit of people’s health. The charity continues its programmes today, with a 3,700-strong collection featuring works by the likes of Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Yinka Shonibare and many others.

But the contemporary history of art in English hospitals arguably began exactly 50 years ago in Manchester with artist and academic Peter Senior, who sought to explore ways in which the arts could play a more proactive role in healthcare environments. In 1973, Senior was invited to exhibit his work in the outpatients’ department at Withington Psychiatric Hospital in south Manchester. The success of this small-scale exhibition led to Senior becoming a de facto artist in residence at Manchester’s St Mary’s Hospital – effectively starting what became the Manchester Hospitals’ Arts Project.

Senior’s project embedded the arts in Manchester hospitals in two pioneering ways. Firstly, and most visibly, Senior – and, later, his so-called Arts Teams of artists and others – created and installed artworks in what were then very drab hospital environments: what Senior called ‘visual disaster areas’, waiting areas and corridors that weren’t even installed with picture hooks or railings where works could be hung. Secondly, he encouraged patients and staff to create art themselves, even presenting an exhibition of work by St Mary’s staff that served to convince sceptics that there was a valuable place for arts in hospitals.

Senior was guided by a simple but powerful credo. ‘If you believe, as I do, that all people are creative, it is a question of finding the appropriate means, the particular techniques that will suit their personalities,’ he said. ‘When you’ve seen this happen, you realise that those activities are relevant and important to people… All people enjoy getting involved with making things.’

Senior’s project eventually expanded to hospitals across Manchester. Then in 1988, at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU, then Manchester Polytechnic), he established the research-led organisation Arts for Health to help guide the provision and use of the arts within healthcare. As well as commissioning and presenting new artworks in healthcare settings, the organisation went on to present a variety of important projects, publications and conferences – including, in 1999, the first International Conference on Culture, Health & the Arts.

By that time, the movement that Senior had set in motion was blossoming in hospitals and healthcare settings around the country. In 1979, to give just one example, The King’s Fund charity established the Murals for Hospital Decoration, latterly known as Art in Hospitals, which commissioned young artists to create murals for NHS buildings in Greater London.

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Two people standing in front of a newly painted mural. The mural depicts scenes from hospitals
Image courtesy of Nottingham Hospitals Charity

Just as the benefits of the arts in hospitals continues to receive wider recognition, so an increasing number of NHS hospitals are introducing arts programmes of their own – building collections of visual artworks, inviting artists to help patients and staff connect through creative activities, and generally improving the hospital experience for patients, visitors and staff. Evidence is growing that creativity and culture improve health and well-being, and doctors are turning to creative approaches through ‘social prescribing’ to help people manage long-term health conditions.

Bringing together managers and professional leads who work to bring arts, heritage and design services to hospitals across England, the National Arts in Hospitals Network (NAHM) works to raise the profile of arts in hospitals, share best practices and instigate innovative projects that celebrate the arts across the NHS.

The NAHM’s activities are allied with the work of organisations such as the Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance and the National Centre for Creative Health (NCCH), which works widely across the cultural, heritage and health sectors. The NCCH was founded following the publication of Creative Health – a landmark 2017 report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, which was established in 2014 to raise awareness of the benefits that the arts can bring to health and well-being.

The 19 NHS hospital arts programmes involved in Our National Health Stories have commissioned artists as varied as Quentin Blake and Grayson Perry; worked with poets, filmmakers, musicians and theatre-makers across the country; and created opportunities for thousands of staff to explore their creativity. To give just a few examples:

Imperial Health Charity, which supports the five Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust hospitals, have commissioned artists including Julian Opie and Bridget Riley to create new work especially for their hospital spaces, alongside a substantial arts engagement programme and a Staff Arts Club.

Newcastle Hospitals Charity, affiliated to Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, supports a range of projects across all mediums – and even invited the National Youth Orchestra to perform for patients at the Great North Children’s Hospital.

The University Hospitals of Derby & Burton NHS Foundation Trust benefit from the work of Air Arts, established in 2007 to bring art, dance, drama, poetry, storytelling, crafts and music into the trust’s five hospitals, and working closely with staff and patients to provide personalised creative activities.

Bringing together 19 NHS hospital trusts, Our National Health Stories is the latest and arguably largest such initiative ever presented in England – a testament to the power of the arts in this landmark year for our NHS.

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