After 20 years as a nurse and creative practitioner, Ben Hartley combined his arts and care experiences by becoming the first Arts Officer at the Royal Marsden in 2016. Here, he tells us how the Trust worked with Paintings in Hospitals to transform the care experience for people with cancer, as well as those who look after them…

Being an arts manager in the NHS encourages working in a cross-disciplinary way to ensure people in hospital can engage with a range of art forms in a variety of ways. We are generally responsible for running a wide variety of projects and working in close collaboration with patients, staff, and artists. Visual arts projects have been shown to have a significant impact on both patients and staff within hospital environments.

The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust is the world’s first hospital dedicated to cancer diagnosis, treatment, research and education, and is now the largest and most comprehensive cancer centre in Europe. Like colleagues working in other cancer treatment settings, the staff at the Trust can feel the emotional and physical strain of striving to maintain an innovative, evidence-based patient-centred practice. Left unchecked and overlooked, burnout could occur which would negatively impact the delivery of good quality, compassionate cancer care. Innovative solutions that bridge the communication gap between patients and carers are needed to improve the patient experience, and often projects that offer communication through engagement with the arts are the solution.

Sylvia Guirey, Time and Again, 1985. Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection at the Royal Marsden.

Sylvia Guirey, Time and Again, 1985. Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection at the Royal Marsden.

The Royal Marsden’s Arts Forum has been part of the Trust for over two decades. It is made up of volunteer patients, carers, visitors and staff keen to improve the atmosphere of the Trust. The Forum and I have enjoyed working with Paintings in Hospitals for many years to help introduce high-profile artists’ work from the Paintings in Hospitals collection into our care spaces. Paintings in Hospital’s bespoke workshops and activities have helped engage our staff and those living with and beyond cancer that we treat. They perfectly complement our own arts in health programme.

One example of this was in 2017 when we approached Paintings in Hospitals to help us. The Arts Forum focused on the experience of our two radiotherapy departments with the aim to transform the environment from a receptive position to be a more active and engaged space.

Edward Dutkiewicz, Figure (2), 2004. Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection at the Royal Marsden.

Thinking about pre-treatment anxiety within radiotherapy waiting areas, we developed a collaborative team amongst the radiotherapy department staff, service users and our Paintings in Hospitals Loans Coordinator. Focusing on public-ness, creative collaboration and the process of exhibiting as socially engaged art practice, the team’s agreed goal was to better understand and improve the radiotherapy department experience by developing a collective short programme of visual arts-based interventions.

Appetites and preferences for arts engagement were ascertained through focus groups with senior departmental staff and a lunchtime art appreciation walk was co-facilitated by Paintings in Hospitals. A questionnaire adapted from the UCL Museums Wellbeing Measures toolkit was selected to gather feedback.

A Paintings in Hospitals art walk at the Royal Marsden

A Paintings in Hospitals art walk at the Royal Marsden

The art walk revealed a previously unknown appetite for engagement with 100% of those attending wanting to be involved in similar future activities. One member of staff said:

“Really enjoyed the talks. I love paintings but I do not have special knowledge behind them. It was a great opportunity to learn about appreciating the paintings as well as about new painters who I didn't know”.

As a result of the project, we rotated new artworks through the radiotherapy department, chosen by staff who were knowledgeable about the artists involved and could discuss the artwork with patients being treated. We are now working with Paintings in Hospitals to offer art appreciation walks in other departments as part of our rolling programme of arts activities.

I know that visual art and engagement activities have an impact on both our patients and our staff because they tell me so. I frequently receive feedback from people as I hang exhibitions, through our visitors’ books, and through managers who keep me informed.

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Ben Hartley is Arts Officer at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust. Ben is on Twitter (@benjhartley).