Natalie Craven is Public Programmes Officer at the Royal College of Physicians. She has an MA in Curating from London Metropolitan University in partnership with Whitechapel Gallery and has curated exhibitions at several hospitals, including for end of life care. Here Natalie recalls her earlier experiences as a hospital art intern...

ENT, ICU, CQC, CNS… A&E was about the only one I knew when I started as an Art Intern in an NHS hospital six years ago. I knew art, but this was a whole different gallery.

Bleep – 77 – (their ext) – (your ext)

A Masters student at the time, I had never worked in an office and had been fortunate to have had very little experience of healthcare, so starting a job at a hospital was pretty daunting. Health professionals spoke a strange medical language and hospital management spoke an even stranger corporate language - both took some time to decipher.

Everything in a hospital is in a forever state of flux. I was a tiny cog in the machine of the hospital, in the comings and goings of patients, staff and families. I was also hot desking at a consultant’s desk which gave me continuous imposter syndrome but occasional amusement when I was mistaken for a 23-year-old palliative care consultant with 13 years medical training...

In search of art

My primary task was to compile the hospital’s first art catalogue and to bring together the many paintings, prints, drawings and sculpture hidden in its labyrinth of corridors. I spent several months getting lost in the hospital with my camera; knocking on doors, rummaging in storerooms, accidentally ending up in the wrong place not wearing scrubs, scouring wards, offices, corridors and waiting areas to document every piece of art I could find. I quickly found my way around, as well as the faux pas; ‘It’s very quiet in here today!’ I breezed onto the children’s ward, ‘we don’t say that word in here’, came the curt reply from the nurses’ station.

In some areas of the hospital, staff had taken it upon themselves to improve their patch or were keen to improve it, coming to me with a flood of ideas. One doctor gave me his father’s photos of the local area which we installed on the dementia ward to help relieve patients’ disorientation. Physiotherapists started to use the pictures as mileposts for patient mobility observations. Other works I came across had been on the walls for so long they had become completely invisible to staff.

I was hugely fortunate to have the guidance of my manager, Lead Nurse for Cancer at the hospital, and who championed the inclusion of art and set me up with all the tools I needed to start planning and commissioning new projects. I learnt all the same skills that you would in a gallery, except my gallery was the hospital: shipping, framing, artist contracts, invoices, communications, managing contractors and freelancers.

MA Curating students when planning exhibitions don’t usually have to consider Infection Control, where the porters leave the cage trolleys, where the oxygen tanks are stored, that artwork needs to ideally be wipe clean... but beyond these practicalities of the hospital environment, I began to engage with the world of arts and health. A visit to several big London hospital art collections opened up this world to me on a completely different scale and I felt like I’d found my niche.

If the word ‘curate’ comes from the Latin ‘to care’, then caring for a collection of art should be simple after caring for the complex needs of patients. However, sometimes it felt like the opposite, as if the art in the hospital was under constant risk from everything inside it, bouncing off the walls like a pinball machine. One patient’s husband got so cross during an appointment he ripped a painting off the wall with his bare hands, screws and all. ‘And that’s just one reason why we have security fittings on the paintings’, my manager reasoned.

‘Don’t suppose you’ve got any Canaletto’s in there?’

Came the quip from around the door every time I was in the art store (the ‘art store’ being a ventilation cupboard). I’m sure the Arts Committee fully expected me to have unearthed a Rembrandt each time I reported back to them.

Undoubtedly the highlight of my job was curating temporary displays in a small pavilion within a space known as the Time Garden; a courtyard oasis in the middle of the hospital complex that had escaped an attempt to play Tetris with admin offices. In this calm and tranquil space solely for the use of End of Life Care patients and their families, we interspersed an annual exhibition with submitted work from Fine Art students from the nearby art school. Completely non-clinical, the pavilion had been cleverly designed to accommodate a hospital bed, all necessary clinical equipment that could be hidden away, even a Nespresso machine! It was a place where families could spend their last moments, say goodbye to their pets, a wedding had even been held there. For the art students, it was a unique opportunity to consider their work outside the studio and how their work could be interpreted beyond their peers.

The artist commission

I had been let loose and was managing my first public art commission at the hospital to select three artists for the Children’s Outpatients Unit. I rather naively put the open call onto Arts Jobs and had been inundated with 200 submissions from artists, graphic designers, children’s illustrators, a few of which had arrived by post and one in a shoe box covered in sequins and fuzzy felt to the bemusement of the hospital post room. With my two days a week internship this was a mammoth task to plough through but also an amazing opportunity and new experience of commissioning art in public spaces.

The art world arrives at the hospital

Interested in my unusual ‘clash of worlds’ internship, an art magazine photographer shadowed me for a day to illustrate an article I was writing for them. The photographer’s approach during the visit was to document the ‘real’, or in this case ‘the slightly shabby’. There followed a nervous afternoon of being followed around trying to show him the best bits of the hospital and distract from what may not look like ‘best practice’ (a phrase that gets said a lot by clinicians) and make it look like I had made a positive difference in my work. The resulting photographs now illustrate this blog, so I hope it’s the latter!

After two years, I had managed multiple projects, published the new art catalogue, commissioned artwork for the Children’s Outpatients and held an exhibition offsite in a gallery fundraiser for the hospital. My ‘Art Intern’ title had become ‘Arts Officer’ after a bit of negotiation and reasoning that interns don’t manage public art commissions by themselves. I would also mention that I was lucky that this role began as a paid internship, hopefully, indicative of a changing culture of arts internships.

A few months after leaving, I got a job at one of those big London hospitals in a sector I didn’t even know existed when I was studying. Perhaps it’s that I’m still relatively new to the sector that it feels as if arts in health has had a wonderful surge of activity in the past few years, or perhaps in an ever-pressured NHS it’s now all the more vital.

Natalie Craven at her desk

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Natalie Craven is Public programmes officer at the Royal College of Physicians Museum. Find out more about Natalie and her work by following her on Twitter (@craven_natalie).

Photos by Daniel Ali, courtesy of Intern Magazine