The Power of Art as Therapy

Ben Pearce, Paintings In Hospitals

3 FEBRUARY 2017,
Howard Hodgkin – Multiplication
Howard Hodgkin – Multiplication

There is a picture in A&E loaned by your organisation. It takes me to a different place - I thought you should know that your work doesn't only help the ill get better - it helps the well stay well (Police Officer, Ysbyty Glan Clwyd District General Hospital, Wales)

There is an invaluable charitable organisation in the UK called Paintings In Hospitals (PiH). By providing therapy and escapism through the medium of the visual arts they offer an alternative aspect to a patients care as well as solace and entertainment to visitors and the care professionals themselves. Established in London in 1959, Paintings in Hospitals works across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. They have a hugely diverse art collection of almost 4,000 artworks, four artwork loan schemes and in addition, deliver multiple art engagement projects and creative activities. They do more than just put paintings in hospitals. They believe that art has an important role to play in the healing process. Introducing Ben Pearce, the Director, he generously answered some questions in order to explain further the activities of the charity as well as provide a glimpse into his personal motivation and passion for the charity:

Why the arts?

I’ve always been into art, from relentlessly drawing when I was young, to painting as a student and into my 20s. I think things in life can best be understood visually.

Did you study art at school / university?

I used to win the Art Prize at school for painting; against some tough competition! I studied Fine Art and History of Art at A-Level, but I didn’t take this through to university. I applied for 6 different courses on my ‘UCAS form’, with the idea that I couldn’t be disappointed if didn’t get one as none were the same. I ended up going to Warwick and studying English Literature & Film.

Do you ever create art works yourself now? If so what is your inspiration and why?

I try to paint again from time to time, but it really has been a while. The last thing I painted was a photo-real interpretation of a Stormtrooper: a birthday present for a big Star Wars fan, and before that a Dali-esque mural for an office, which I think has now been knocked down. During this time my style (which I would probably describe as a pastiche of Lucian Freud) has had zero time to develop or go anywhere of late.

What was your journey to where you are now? And how long have you been at Paintings In Hospitals – what is it that makes you proud to be there?

I have been at PiH just over 2 years. I started out in TV and Film, then went into Media Research. Then an MSc within the Social Policy department at London School of Economics enabled me to mix arts, heritage and social issues. A year in social housing led to two in regeneration, which led to fundraising, bid development and four years working on the London 2012 Olympics. Here, working on the High Street 2012 programme I led the historic buildings conservation programme and also managed my first public arts programme: The Summer Safari. This helped 17 groups put on cultural projects in their area as part of the Olympic Games.

From this I moved around the Monopoly board from Whitechapel to Mayfair and became Project Director of the Heritage Lottery funded Burlington Project, which is now publicly known as RA250, at the Royal Academy, London. This will see the former no.6 Burlington Gardens become part of the RA fully, as well as new programmes launched that take influence from the history of the building as a centre for (artistic) learning. In doing this project I, unfortunately, never left that building and I wanted to see more public benefit in what I was doing. Seeing the vacancy at PiH and thinking about the idea of taking the magic of an art gallery like the RA into places as varied as care homes to GP waiting rooms was simultaneously subversive, exciting, and a huge challenge and one I haven’t looked back from since.

Who is on your team at Paintings In Hospitals and how many of you are there now?

I’m lucky to have a great, committed team at PiH. There are six full time people and seven part-time, as well as regional teams of volunteers. Most of us are from arts backgrounds but also have experience in research, public policy, museums, communications and education – so it’s a lot of unique experience for a pretty young team.

Paintings In Hospitals was established in 1959 but by who and why?

Paintings in Hospitals was started by Sheridan Russell, then an Almoner at the National Hospital for Neurology, near Russell Square in central London. He borrowed a painting and placed it in his ward, and found some dramatic anecdotal responses from the patients. Some reported feeling better, and all to feeling happier. With the help of the Nuffield Foundation, Sheridan set out to create a unique art collection: one containing artworks chosen specifically to comfort and support patients and carers alike. Through the following decades, with the aid of Sir Dennis Proctor, former Chairman of Tate; Roger de Grey, former President of the Royal Academy of Arts and many other patrons, trustees and supporters, our art collection and our charity’s impact both grew.

Why do you personally think that art is essential within care environments?

Art changes the way you feel, and takes you out of the situations you are in. In care environments, the focus is on medicine, health & safety, numbers etc, and care sites (through no fault of their own) can be quite cold, clinical places that are not easy places to recover in. Art brings hope for the future, and stimulates your imagination, and this is for staff and visitors as much as for the patients and service users too.

I understand there are not just exhibitions as part of your programme – what other creative activities do you deliver?

We deliver many creative projects, and also act as a broker between arts organisations and health providers, such as our recent project with the Wallace Collection and London GP surgeries. We deliver engagement activities and these help patients co-curate the displays we offer, helping them take control of their environments. We also offer ArtWalks, guided tours of our exhibitions and displays within sites.

If money was no option what would you like to see the programme deliver?

I would like to greatly ramp up what we are doing, offering more fully funded loans, and reaching parts of the UK that we currently cannot or do not, such as the North West, or Devon & Cornwall.

Have you a favourite Painting In Hospitals piece?

There are so many! over 4,100 to choose from! We have some wonderful artist patrons too. At the moment, I am enjoying 19 Greys by Bridget Riley, and Arunjex, by Eduardo Paolozzi.

Is it a thankless job – how do you know that the difference is being made?

The comments we get from patients, staff, visitors and others are amazing: you can see the difference we make, and the appreciation that something relatively simple can make such a difference. I think, and hope, that anyone who works in, or is treated by, the NHS knows we have their backs.

If an artist wished to donate an artwork could they?

At the moment we have to say no. Although we have the highest % of a collection out on public display of any public provider in the UK at 75%, we still have c.1000 artworks in storage, awaiting reframing or needing conservation, so we cannot take in more works. We get offers daily and we are setting up a Collections Advisory sub-Committee to advise our Board of Trustees and our Head of Collection on this so we expect to formalise new accession criteria in 2017.

How can non-artists support the programme?

I would say for both non-artists and artists, the best way to support us is a donation. Just £50 can put an amazing original artwork in a hospital or any other type of health or social care site for a year. Our income is reducing this year compared to last with the cuts to NHS budgets and the competition for general funds from other charities, who can be seen as more ‘urgent’.

What is your relationship with the Menier Gallery and why is that essential to your programme?

The Menier Gallery and Menier Chocolate Factory are our Head Office, here in London. We put on an annual gallery programme (separate from our collection) in order to hire out the space to help fund our charitable activities. Each year we also put on Connect: an arts and health professionals networking space, and also Showcase, an exhibition of unusual works from our Collection.

What is your thoughts on the current Brexit / NHS situation?

When I stop feeling depressed about both, I try to say positive by looking at the differences PiH can make.

What are the Paintings In Hospitals plans for the year ahead?

We will launch our new 3 Year Plan, ‘PiH60’, which will begin activities to lead us up to our 60th birthday at the end of 2019. We will also start 2 major new projects, one with an art school and one with a gallery: but I cannot yet say more!

For more information or to donate:
www.justgiving.com/paintingsinhospitals