Art and the healing environment

Art and the healing environment

'Between birth and death, many of life’s most critical moments occur in hospital and they deserve to take place in surroundings that match their significance.'

Richard Cork, The Healing Presence of Art (2012)

Every Colour You Are, Ruth Campau, Södra Älvsborg Hospital, Sweden Download 'Every Colour You Are, Ruth Campau, Södra Älvsborg Hospital, Sweden ©Vivienne Reiss'
"The way a hospital looks and feels, the colours, light, materiality, furnishing, landscaping, and art are all key to creating healing environments."

Hospitals are integral to all our lives, we will all visit a hospital as a patient or carer, and many of us will know someone who works in a hospital. They are settings with rich heritages that house complex human stories, and places where patients, carers, and staff are dealing with challenging situations and a range of emotional concerns.

The way a hospital looks and feels, the colours, light, materiality, furnishing, landscaping, and art are all key to creating healing environments. Research tells us that good environments contribute to improved health outcomes and many architecture practices are working on innovative design approaches to healthcare projects.

Having worked in various hospitals in the UK over the last decade I was delighted to be awarded a Churchill Fellowship to visit Denmark, Sweden and Japan and explore how healthcare buildings in these countries enhance health and wellbeing, and the contribution of art to the healing environment.

The integration of art in the design process

My starting point was the integration of art and architecture in relation to new buildings, and commissioning art as part of the design process. During my Fellowship I visited a range of hospitals and met curators, artists, architects, researchers, care staff, clinicians, project managers, commissioners experiencing art programmes and artworks in situ first hand.

I have recently published my findings, they illustrate the multi-faceted role of art and includes 13 case studies set in general, paediatric and psychiatric hospitals. The sites and situations for art are varied, some focusing on the entrance and public areas, others taking form throughout the building and integrated into the fabric of hospitals, several extending to the wider public realm and other platforms.

I experienced mesmerising and uplifting art, working in a symbolic way, inspiring hope, and transporting the receiver into the realms of imagination and possibility. I saw inventive examples of art that supported navigation or playing other functional roles within the environments, and artists finding creative approaches and solutions to design issues.

Artwork and artistic signage by Jesper Nyrén and Nacho Tatjer, Queen Silvia Hospital, Sweden Download ''
Artwork by Poul Gernes, Herlev Hospital, Denmark Download ''

Other projects involved art as a way of making people feel welcome and cared for, relieving boredom and engaging building users, as well as providing life-affirming and thought-provoking experiences. In many of the case studies, art created an identity and added character.

In several projects art created narratives supporting the psychological and social needs of both patients and staff. Art is also part of developing an ethos for a place, and curators and artists engaged not just with the physical space but also the social context and hospital communities.

Gong (announcing the birth of a child), maquette and original artwork by Kristine Roepstorff, Aarhus University Hospital, Maternity / Dokk1, Denmark Download ''
Butterflies Crossing the Sea (collaborative arts project), Shikoku Medical Centre for Children and Adults, Japan © Aine Mori Download ''

In conclusion

Several overarching principles have laid the ground for impactful art commissioning in the hospitals I visited. This included early-stage involvement of curators and artists which has been key to embedding art into the wider project, broadening the role that art can play in healthcare settings and how having an art policy directive has enabled art programmes to flourish in countries like Denmark and Sweden. In my report I propose several recommendations in relation to policy, strategy, and research building on the excellent track record of work already taking place in the UK. Since carrying out my Fellowship I have been considering different ways of working and will be exploring various co-creation strategies, working with artists, architects, healthcare professionals and patients, to inform art commissioning and ultimately the shaping of new healthcare facilities.

I’m looking forward to sharing my findings, which I hope convey the richness of contemporary arts practice in the hospitals I visited, and demonstrates the unique expertise, skills, and experiences that curators and artists can bring to enhancing and humanising healthcare environments.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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