No Maintenance – a creative challenge for public art in healthcare settings

By Chris Fremantle

Maintenance is one of the most difficult challenges in public art, especially working with the public sector, because no-one wants to commit to long term costs. As a result many briefs, and I’ve written my share of them recently for new projects in hospitals, specify zero or at best low maintenance. They go on to stipulate that any cleaning must utilise equipment already in use. Art must be able to cope with chlorine-based cleaning products and even with steam cleaning. Often the response is to do what we normally do but to specify more robust materials.

What if we imagined ‘no maintenance’ as a positive opportunity? What if zero maintenance was a creative challenge for artists and designers and a benefit for hospital patients, families, carers and staff (medical, nursing and support)? Could we still provide a positive distraction, aid way-finding, support patient dignity, make distinctive ‘places’, connect with local and regional cultures?

I’ve been Producer on a number of hospital projects, including for Ginkgo Projects on NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde’s new Queen Elizabeth University Hospital and Royal Hospital for Children comprising 8 major commissions; for Wide Open on the new NHS Dumfries & Galloway Royal Infirmary; and working for NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde directly on the the multi-award winning new Stobhill and new Victoria Hospitals. I’ve also co-authored with commissioned artists a number of papers at the Design for Health Conference, including one on designing for dignity and another on ways to involve the artist and designer with the clinician in developing the brief. The challenge that is the subject of this blog is also published as a provocation in the new Design for Health Journal (requires academic login – email for a copy).

Hospitals and healthcare settings are all about maintenance. Literally in terms of constant careful cleaning and in the wider sense of caring for, repairing and maintaining patients. One of the recurring themes in public art for hospitals in Scotland is the environment, and this has led to a particular interest in the idea of biophilic design, using ecological principles to inform design development. Biodiversity is another area where maintenance must be considered. It’s interesting to look at Biodiversity Action Plans because sometime you find that the best maintenance is ‘no maintenance’, in other words that the biodiversity on the site will thrive best if there is no maintenance regime for the site, even in the case of Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

One artist who has turned maintenance from a problem into a creative principle is Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Ukeles wrote a Manifesto for Maintenance Art in 1969 and went on to become Artist in Residence in the New York City Sanitation Department, a post which she has held since the late 1970s.

Ukeles’ Manifesto is a challenge to avant garde art. It focuses on the everyday tasks – she asks “after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” One of Ukeles’ projects as Artist in Residence with the NYC Sanitation Department entitled ‘Touch Sanitation’ involved her in shaking hands with every single worker in the Sanitation Department and saying “Thank you for keeping New York City alive”.

If maintenance can not only be a challenge, but also a creative provocation, perhaps it’s time to think about a new way of doing public art in hospitals and healthcare settings? To share this challenge as widely as possible I’ve created a Brief as a way to open this challenge up to as wide a range of approaches as possible. I’m interested in both art and design proposals that address the challenge directly and also people who want to take on my argument at a theoretical level. The brief is reproduced below.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles (courtesy of

The Zero Maintenance Brief: Art and Design for Healthcare Settings

1. Introduction:

We are seeking proposals for artworks that fulfill one of the conventional roles in a healthcare setting such as distraction, way-finding or patient dignity, but are made in such a way as to meet the zero maintenance requirement in an imaginative way.

2. Location:

The challenge we are posing is to develop proposals for artworks that can be created for healthcare settings, including acute hospitals, dementia units, renal dialysis units, children’s wards, secure psychiatric wards, local health centres, waiting rooms, entrances, immediate landscapes, and so forth. Variously these might be challenged by strict infection control, heavy usage, long waiting times, regular repeat visits, stress and anxiety. The proposals would need to recognise the different people in the environment, staff, patients, families and visitors; the different ages and the cultural mix. Differences in sensory ability should be taken into account. No healthcare setting has all these characteristics.

Proposals should self-define the specific set that provides the context for the work. Proposals might include plans and elevations of the context for the work.

3. Community Engagement:

The location selected will have a range of users including:

  • Medical, Nursing, Administrative and Ancillary Staff
  • Patients
  • Relatives and Carers
  • Community organisations and groups
  • Arts networks, local contractors and craftspeople

Responses to the Brief should indicate the form(s) of Community Engagement that are relevant to the proposal.

4. Budget:

The budget for making the work is unlimited. Clearly a normal brief would have a required lifespan for the work, usually varying from 10 years for internal finishes to 50 years for structural elements. The proposal should indicate the lifespan or duration or process of the work which could extend to the full lifespan of a healthcare building (and some of the ones that we are still using are over 100 years old).

This is not primarily framed as a ‘problem solving’ brief, but rather one that focuses on ‘sense-making.’ In other words we are not looking for technical solutions to making the normal things in more robust ways, but rather proposals that creatively engage with the challenge to make sense of the best maintenance being no maintenance.

Proposals should include an indicative budget.

5. Timescale:

The author will accept submissions up until 31 December 2017.

6. Copyright and Moral Rights:

The copyright and all intellectual property rights in the works remain vested in the individual submitting the proposal. The submitter of the proposal grants the author of the Brief an irrevocable, exclusive royalty free licence to copy, use and to reproduce designs, models and supporting information for any purpose including publishing in any media or other form of distribution.

The author will at all times acknowledge and identify the person submitting the proposal including all occasions on which the work (including drawings and models) is exhibited in public.

The author undertakes not to intentionally alter, deface, modify or destroy the work (or knowingly consent to others doing so).

7. Submissions

Submission to be sent in electronic format (pdf no greater than 5mb) to the author at as below by 5pm 31 December 2017. You will be notified of receipt of your proposal with 4 days of submission.

Submission should include:

  1. Curriculum Vitae;
  2. Your Proposal including:
    • Description and explanation including the imagined location of the work and how it meets the Zero Maintenance challenge (up to 2 sides of A4)
    • Visualisation of your proposal (up to 15 images)
    • Statement describing your approach to community engagement
    • Outline budget


Chris Fremantle is a producer and researcher.  He works on public art projects in healthcare settings and also co-authors papers the role of art and therapeutic design in hospitals. He is also involved in strategic development of public art, seeking to develop a shared discourse across artforms involved in sited work. He established ecoartscotland as a platform for research and practice in 2010. ecoartscotland is a blog, a mobile library and develops projects in partnership including Land Art Generator Glasgow.  


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. 

3 thoughts on “No Maintenance – a creative challenge for public art in healthcare settings

  1. Interesting thoughts Chris – I imagine there would be examples of public art where part of the installation, and the vision , was a deliberate no maintenance?

    Love that question: “after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?”

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