Meet The Charity Bringing Artwork To NHS Mental Health Inpatient Units

In conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Week (May 9-15), Hauser & Wirth has announced a brand new partnership with Hospital Rooms; the arts and mental health charity that commissions extraordinary artworks for NHS mental health inpatient units throughout the UK. Already collectively raising over £200,000 for the charity, Hauser & Wirth has committed to support the charity until 2025, with funding alongside hosting a series of events and an annual exhibition at its London gallery that will feature the talented artists creating works as part of Hospital Rooms’ ongoing efforts. Inside Issue 68 of 10 Magazine, Claudia Croft sits down with Tim A. Shaw and Niamh White, co-founders of Hospital Rooms, to discuss their remarkable work. 

Sometimes the best ideas come out of the worst circumstances. For Tim A. Shaw and his partner Niamh White, that moment came when a close friend had a mental health crisis and was sectioned. When the pair visited the secure unit where their friend was being treated, they were shocked by the bleak conditions. “It was so bare and clinical and inhumane,” says Shaw.

“We went away from that experience being happy that our friend was recovering but also thinking maybe there was something we could do as a single project. Just to see if we could try and change one of these in-patient units and improve it using our skills and contacts,” he says. The idea for Hospital Rooms – the charity they founded in 2015, dedicated to using art to transform mental health units into more cheering and enriching spaces – was formed.

The couple first met at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in Mayfair and each had a decade of experience in the art world. Shaw is an artist and art technician, while White is a curator. They put together a proposal to bring art pieces into spartan hospital units, believing that creating better environments would not only brighten the everyday experience of the at-risk patients there, but would make them feel cared for. White says, “these environments are damaging people and they are so sterile. They are so extracted from the world. They communicate something – that you are separate and not very valued.”

The pair thought that NHS trusts would immediately embrace their idea. Instead, they experienced 18 months of resistance. “In-patient mental health units are very risk- adverse places,” says Shaw. “The patients can be in such severe distress that everything is risk-assessed and aesthetics are not a priority,” explains White. “What kind of door handles they have, what kind of curtain rails – everything is scrutinised to protect people because they are so vulnerable. That way of thinking has taken it down an extremely functional and clinical road, whereby there aren’t really a lot of alternatives in terms of aesthetic choice.”

Dexter Dalwood, Northside House

A year and half after being set up, Hospital Rooms finally got its first ‘yes’ from the medical director at Springfield University Hospital in Tooting, southwest London. White and Shaw set about fundraising and recruited 11 artists, including Gavin Turk and Nick Knight, to create unique pieces for its Phoenix unit. It was a huge success for the patients and the hospital and, within a couple of years, Hospital Rooms was being inundated with requests from similar institutions.

In the years since setting up the charity, the outcomes they’ve seen have vindicated their approach. “We know that the arts can be supportive towards our [overall] health and mental health,” says White. “There’s the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing that is now doing lots of things around social prescribing and there’s a small amount of research on the types of art and colours that can be good or bad or antagonistic.” In short, there has been a sea change in official attitudes to art in hospitals. It is no longer seen as an afterthought, with many new hospital builds now factoring in art at the planning stage. Hospital Rooms is currently working with St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust, a new building that’s part of Springfield in Tooting. “They asked us to commission 20 major artworks. Some of them are for the in-patient wards but the majority are for the atriums, stairwells and hallways.” These new hospitals are a world away from nightmarish ‘bedlams’ and recast psychiatric units as places that can be sanctuaries that are creative and supportive of mental health. “Part of the agenda is actually about moving the dial on how we perceive mental health institutions,” says White. As health bodies innovate their thinking in terms of the clinical environment, Hospital Rooms is expanding its reach. It is currently working with the WHO and fielding requests from international partners in Europe and the US.

Sophie Clements, When The Clouds Clear, Hellingly Centre 

The benefits of art in hospitals cannot be denied and those multiply when that art is produced with the patients in the setting, says White: “If you include people in the environment and the artworks, they feel an ownership of them.” This collaborative approach builds confidence and self-worth, which, for someone dealing with a mental health crisis, is a vital part of the healing process. Every project starts with artist-led workshops with patients, many of whom find making art and interacting with artists to be a new and incredibly rewarding experience. White recalls one participant in a mother-and-baby unit who had become institutionalised: “She was accustomed to being someone who wasn’t allowed to make any decisions for herself but she said having a professional artist tell her ‘we can’t do this without you and your understanding of this experience’ was very validating for her as a human being.”

Some patients have shown exceptional creative talent. Two, from the Hellingly Centre in East Sussex, went on to win arts prizes for their work, with Hospital Rooms receiving special permission from the Ministry of Justice to take patients and their families to see the work in a gallery. “It pivoted us again into a new direction,” reflects Shaw, “thinking about the longevity of these projects, their legacies and the talent that we often see.”

Richard Mark Rawlins, Titian Ward

David Lock, an artist and regular 10 contributor, recently worked on a project for a men’s mental health unit in east London. For Lock it was not about playing safe creatively. Like many of the artists who collaborate with Hospital Rooms, he found the experience mind-expanding: “I felt like it opened a new avenue for me and I felt pushed to do exceptional work.”

Lock began the process with a series of voluntary workshops with the patients. He set up in a side room in the unit, keeping the door open because “it piqued their interest”. He wanted to do a collage workshop but, because scissors are not allowed in the unit, they tore out images from his stack of old magazines.

His finished artwork (its composition inspired by a 1960s photograph of African American artist, author and songwriter Romare Bearden sat around a table with his friends) incorporated some of the collages they made together. “It had their hands in it,” says Lock, who installed the finished piece in January 2022. “It was a sterile unit, but if you can fill it with great art, it’s such a positive thing.”

Healing art doesn’t have to be soft and pastel-coloured.

Abigail Reynolds, Greenfields 

It can be dynamic and intriguing. Shaw tells all the artists they work with to “think of the most impressive, ambitious thing you want to do”. He will then troubleshoot materials and techniques to ensure they are safe for the environment. Convention, be damned. Hospital Room has numerous projects on the go. The artist Sophie Clements has been the first to use video art, with a huge 3m x 4m installation of the sea at the Hellingly Centre. And Harun Morrison is transforming a bleak concrete hospital courtyard at the Askew mental health unit in Hammersmith into a contemplative space, while the charity is working on its first kinetic art pieces. Nothing is impossible.

Top artwork: David Lock, Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit for men, East London Foundation Trust. Artwork photographed by Damian Griffith. Taken from Issue 68 of 10 Magazine – FUTURE, BALANCE, HEALING – out NOW. Order your copy here.

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