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Arts & Culture: The creative touch

Savoy Place provided a perfect venue
The contribution of the arts to creating a healing environment shone out at the UK’s recent National Patient Environment and the Arts conference, as Veronica Simpson reports


Great art puts you in touch with your humanity – the wordless response it evokes in our hearts and minds brings us to a point of stillness and empathy. Where better to place it than in the dehumanising environment of hospitals and healthcare institutions?

The National Patient Environment and the Arts Conference 2009 certainly did much to remind us of the vital role the arts can play in the restoration and healing of the human spirit, from the life-affirming diversity of creative projects that Dr Sam Everington has established at his renowned Bromley by Bow ‘healthy living centre’ in London to the brilliant artistic interventions placed in three of Manchester’s newest healthcare buildings by the Lime arts in healthcare organisation, despite the many pitfalls and problems thrown in their way by procurement and construction processes.

Ably hosted and chaired by Susan Francis, special advisor for the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), the day-long event kicked off with a handful of poems – from familiar classics to the highly original and the humorous – read by Isobel Montgomery Campbell, editor designate of the Poems in the Waiting Room charity.

Dr Sam Everington
From that uplifting start we were brought into the extraordinary world of Everington’s practice, designed and run unlike any other GP’s surgery, with its principles of accessibility, humanity and transformation through creative and entrepreneurial expression. Some 100 projects are now run from its base, in the heart of one of East London’s poorest areas.

The buildings that house this all-embracing facility are remarkable – curving, sometimes tree-like structures that create opportunities for interaction and also reflection, set in formerly neglected local authority land now reclaimed as community parkland.

Sculptures, stained glass, paintings and community art works decorate every nook and cranny – not lofty, baffling, conceptual art, but art as therapeutic intervention. We learned that stained glass can be used to educate patients about their ‘five fruit and veg a day’ as well as illuminate a quiet corner, and paintings of babies can help to lift the shame associated, in some ethnic communities, with children born with special needs.

Jane Willis Sarah Waller Dr Jenny Secker

It is nearly always the individuals involved that make the difference between a well-intentioned scheme and a truly outstanding one – in the arts as in every other field. Though the energy, positivity and commitment of the King’s Fund’s ‘Enhancing the Healing Environment’ initiative cannot be doubted, the outcomes of its environmental improvement projects – always designed by a team of local healthcare or community professionals but never in conjunction with a designer – fell far short of what seemed to be achieved by genuine arts professionals.

A superficial enhancement through pastel colour schemes and new but still relentlessly institutional furniture are all that can be expected  of a team that has no rigorous understanding of architecture and how it affects light and movement, or a truly gifted visual artist who can transform and illuminate a space with one well-chosen work.

Susan Francis
Jenny Secker, professor of mental health at Anglia Ruskin University, and her team have tried to quantify the benefits to health and wellbeing. But science so often fails us when trying to pin down the exact causes and effects of wellbeing.

Ultimately, she could only reiterate what anyone with a modicum of common sense could see from the many excellent projects listed throughout the day: that involvement and exposure to well-run projects, harnessing creativity and self-expression, boost confidence, self-esteem and motivation, expand horizons and increase social engagement at all levels of mental ‘health’.

Veronica Simpson is an architectural writer








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