Too often art commissioning in children’s hospitals has been patronising and clichéd, or simply relegated to an afterthought. Not only is it ‘just’ hospital art, it’s also ‘just’ for children.
If I had a penny for every time we’ve been asked to put something ‘fun’ up on the hospital walls, we could have bought a Picasso by now. I’ve lost count of the number of times it’s been suggested we just provide some glitter and colouring for the kids on the wards. Nothing wrong with a bit of glitter, but it’s no substitute for a quality creative arts programme.
The recently formed Paediatric Hospital Arts Network aims to promote and support arts teams in children’s hospitals – recognising the particular need and context of these settings. For instance, how does our work intersect with services you would only find in a children’s hospital – such as Play Therapy or Hospital Schools? There is pioneering work being done across the sector, such as the magnificent new Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, and innovative arts programmes at Evelina, Edinburgh Sick Kids, Artfelt in Sheffield, and Lime Arts in Manchester, plus many others.
However, there is still room for progress. Often there is an assumption that the work is for ‘little’ children, but actually our patients range from 0 – 19 and sometimes older, not to mention the ‘grown –ups’ who have to visit, live and work in the hospital – mums, dads, carers, siblings and staff. And, as we know, the interests of a 15 year old girl are very different to those of a boy of 5!
Children and young people are not a homogenous group, and their tastes are notoriously changeable. When planning children’s hospital décor it can be tempting to follow the latest fad, but that imagery can date quickly. Even if everyone is addicted to Pokémon Go this year and Trolls are top of the Christmas lists, next year they are sure to be un-coolest thing ever.
Why can’t we strive for quality? Why can’t we work with artists of international repute, with materials and aspirations like any other public art commission?
What we find when we actually consult with children and young people is that their design aspirations are very high, and they reject work that is ‘babyish’ or patronising.
Our recent co-design consultation with the GOSH Young Peoples’ Forum on the future redevelopment of the hospital highlighted a desire for light, colour, space and the importance of nature and the natural environment. Technology is understandably important, but they also expressed a wish for quiet spaces, with rooms to read, chill out and socialise.
Children and young people are sophisticated consumers and creators of culture.
We should recognise the potential of digital art, and this generations’ expectation of interaction with art programmes and commissions. We should invite communication, input and even creation of new works through social media, innovative apps and devices. Hospitals can be very risk-averse places, and of course the appropriate safeguards and e-safety need to be in place. But that shouldn’t prevent us from embracing the skills our children and young people have in the creative use of technology. Rather than ignoring the new smart phone democracy, we should be celebrating its potential to provide easy access to artforms such as film-making and digital photography.
The arts should be part of every childhood. Children and young people in hospital can miss out on opportunities to engage with culture. This is where participatory programmes are particularly valuable. As well as the well-documented benefits of arts on health, they provide opportunities for cultural engagement to a group who may be particularly disadvantaged.
It can be a challenge working within the parameters of the hospital context; how can we create exciting art work that also conforms with, say, infection control guidelines? Innovative solutions such as vinyl wallpaper or virtual windows that can withstand chlorine cleaning can lead to new ways of working. Arts interventions in waiting rooms can help alleviate the anxiety of delayed appointments for the whole family. Siblings often have to attend appointments, particularly in school holidays, which is why we programme a Family Arts Week every year. And creative forms of expression such as music can help health professionals communicate and engage with young people, especially those with special needs who may find the hospital setting particularly challenging.
Arts strategies need to be built in from the beginning of the conception of new builds. At GOSH the arts team sit within Development and Property Services. This might not seem the most obvious organisational fit at first, but we’ve found it gives us a unique opportunity to make sure the arts are part of every phase of redevelopment and central to the building masterplan. Percent for Art, a public art policy that originated in America, recommends allocating a percentage of build costs to art. Adopting this principal indicates an organisation’s commitment to prioritising art, and is especially useful in a hospital context where many priorities compete.
Over the next few years several new buildings will open at GOSH in response to increasing demand for our specialist services. These flagship clinical and research spaces will showcase cutting- edge design and art strategies that include a wide range of international artists, with work created in collaboration with patients, families and staff. Participatory programmes, interactive displays and the use of technology will, we hope, result in creative environments worthy of our patients whatever their age. And not a Pokémon in sight.
Susannah Hall is Joint Head of Arts at GOSH Arts.
GOSH Arts is the arts programme at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Foundation Trust, and is funded by Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity.
For more information see our website or follow us on twitter @GOSH_Arts
To join The Paediatric Hospital Arts Network, email firstname.lastname@example.org
The author is writing in a personal capacity. The views contained in this article do not necessarily reflect those of LAHF or the organisations described therein. Copyright is retained by the author.