Art in hospitals

In celebration of World Art Day, we take a look back through The King’s Fund library and archive collection to reflect on the Fund's history of commissioning works of art for hospitals.

There is growing evidence to support the widely held belief that art can influence the health and wellbeing of patients and staff in health care settings. The practice of decorating hospitals with paintings, sculptures and murals has a long history. From the medieval period with its religious and spiritually themed works, to the philanthropic endeavours of the artists of the 18th and 19th centuries, the use of visual arts in hospitals has evolved over time.

In the first half of the 20th century, new hospital buildings began to focus on a more medicalised approach to care and little or no art was placed in hospitals during this time. This decorative blight continued through to the 1960s, until which time ‘hospitals, wards and patients had to suffer environments in which colour and decoration were taboo’.

Various art-in-hospital schemes – such as the Paintings in Hospitals loan scheme – came into existence during the mid-20th century. However, there was no ‘central initiative to brighten with pictures the other dreary buildings of the NHS’. So in 1979, The King’s Fund established the Murals for Hospital Decoration scheme, later known as the Art in Hospitals scheme, to commission young artists to paint murals for NHS buildings in Greater London. The scheme was jointly financed with the Greater London Association of the Arts Council and administered by the Public Art Development Trust.

One of the first applications for funding under the scheme was from St Charles’s Hospital, West London. Although the hospital already subscribed to the Paintings in Hospitals scheme, staff wanted to install further decoration to ‘compensate for great corridors with dirty paint and gloomy Victorian interiors’. The artist Michael Ginsborg created a mural in the entrance hall of the hospital, an abstract design of ‘blocks of sympathetic colour decorating the whole foyer, in subtle but strong shades’.

The Art in Hospitals scheme, like the Fund’s other grant-giving schemes at the time, was established to provide funding for projects that the NHS couldn’t pay for itself. In the first year of the scheme, The King’s Fund contributed £8,750 towards artist fees and materials. It continued to fund projects through the 1980s, with additional support from the London Arts Board. By 1989, 10 years after the scheme was established, the Fund had supported more than 40 projects – for a number of hospitals including Charing Cross, the Royal London, St George’s, St Stephen’s, Royal Free and St Thomas’s – with around £20,000 a year invested in arts-related projects.

Over the following decade, the Fund continued to expand its support for art in health care. In 1989, it launched a series of King’s Fund prints: the art historian and curator Richard Cork commissioned six artists including Richard Long, Anish Kapoor and Bruce McLean, to produce limited edition prints for sale to NHS hospitals, and a set was donated to the Tate Gallery for inclusion in the national collection of modern art.

In another project, The King’s Fund worked with The Forbes Trust to fund a sculpture residency at St John’s Hospice, Lancaster. The residency, which saw two artists creating their work within a hospice environment, was believed to be first project of its kind. When the residency was assessed, the evaluators were interested in examining all possibilities: from art being potentially disruptive to art as effective therapy. They wanted to determine whether or not the art was considered beneficial by the patients, staff and volunteers. They concluded that ‘the residency greatly benefited a number of people and the signs point to the effects being long-lasting’.

Many hospitals recognised the range of benefits that artists could bring to the hospital environment and were interested in establishing their own art commissioning programmes, but needed help to do so. In response to this, The King’s Fund and Lesley Greene, director at the Public Art Development Trust, published guidelines in 1989 that provided several recommendations based on 10 years’ of expertise in commissioning art projects. The guidelines provided support to hospitals that wished to commission art independently.

The Art in Hospitals scheme continued for more than 20 years and illustrated the Fund’s commitment to promoting good practice and innovation in all aspects of health care. The legacy of this work can be seen in subsequent programmes such as Enhancing the Healing Environment, which not only provided strong evidence of the therapeutic impact of good design, but also encouraged more widespread use of the arts within hospital settings.

To find out more about The King’s Fund’s work in commissioning art for hospitals, visit our digital archive.

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