Our Collections Coordinator Alice Woodhouse talks democratic art, advocacy for art and wellbeing, and why she enjoys working at Paintings in Hospitals with Nina Klaff

How long have you been with Paintings in Hospitals? What is your role in your own words?

I started on the very first working day back in January 2018. My position as Collections Coordinator was then a new post. My role is to look after the art in our collection. I am the go-to person if people need to know about an artwork. I work some days in our workshop with art we have in storage: making sure that each work is photographed, audited, has digital resources available, and is in the right place. I also look after the art that is out on loan – auditing them and liaising with care partners, our Relationship & Development Managers and National Loans Coordinator about what how to care for and display certain artworks. I do a little research into the artists and artworks in the collection but I don’t think that’s in my job description! And I also manage a team of volunteers at our workshop and across the country, who check our artworks. Our volunteers at our major showcase displays give the artworks a basic clean and check that they are okay in terms of infection control because they are in major hospitals in public corridors.

What’s your background?

I came to Paintings in Hospitals from a very short interlude in contemporary art publishing. I worked for Black Dog Publishing as their Collaborations Editor, working with museums and galleries who wanted to co-produce publications for exhibitions. The bulk of my experience before that was as Collections Coordinator at the William Morris Society and Emery Walker’s House, and those two museums as a pair for a Heritage Lottery Fund project called Arts and Crafts Hammersmith. This was a four-year-long project to make the historic houses that contain the collections suitable for display and use into the future. I was also Curator’s Assistant for the William Morris Society, which was a similar job but with museum artefacts and following museum accreditation procedures – packing, moving, storing, auditing, writing about, researching, doing talks, training volunteers. Before that, I interned for Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture in Moscow, but I was based in their London office. I wish I had been able to go to Moscow!

How would you describe what the charity does?

I find that quite difficult actually.

The charity advocates and delivers art to support wellbeing. That’s wellbeing across the board: for patients, for any kind of casual site user, or for the more embedded staff in hospitals.

Paintings in Hospitals is somewhat unique in the arts and health landscape in that we have our collection, which is external to a hospital trust or a hospital care site, and it exists purely to support other people’s wellbeing, not the wellbeing of the charity itself. It’s a very innovative way of thinking in terms of how collections work and how art can support people. We loan artwork and we do engagement activities around that artwork. We also work on major projects external to the loans programme that support greater understanding and awareness of arts and health. We’ve worked with Central Saint Martins training future curators, and with the National Gallery and the V&A to bring major national collections to healthcare settings.

In your opinion, what is the most important thing that Paintings in Hospitals does?

I think it’s the agency we give to people who engage with the collection. Since 2010, we’ve been working with the co-curating model. That means that artworks were longlisted by us at Paintings in Hospitals and then shortlisted by the staff and the site users who were going to be seeing the artwork in their space. That one little bit of engagement about deciding what artwork they want is a really empowering opportunity: a moment of support for people, giving them space to voice their thoughts, to be heard and listened to, and be shown that they’re allowed to have opinions about art that they might not see or know about otherwise. I did a re-hang at the South Birmingham Breast Unit. They’d had some refurbishment work done so we’d taken the artwork down. As I was installing one particular artwork, members of staff were coming past saying ‘Oh! It’s our cat! Our cat is back!’ It was this gorgeous textile work of a cat, and it became ‘their’ cat. I think that’s the most important thing Paintings in Hospitals does. It makes people feel that they have some kind of ownership over the art they see on the wall.

What do you like most about working at Paintings in Hospitals?

The team has always been incredibly supportive. The demands of the job are large, everyone is always rushed off their feet, but we deliver far above what should be possible because of the camaraderie and support of the core staff team. It’s unlike most other places I’ve worked. There’s very little ego and I think that unites everyone, which is really refreshing. Other than that, it’s a bit trite to say, but I’ve always wanted to work in art that helps people. The places I worked before were actively political collections in historical houses, but I came to arts and health because I firmly believe that art should be democratic and available to everyone. I like to remind myself of that when I’m swearing to myself at my laptop because of a printer that doesn’t work!

Why do you work for Paintings in Hospitals?

I believe deep down in my soul that everyone should have access to good art, and should have the opportunity to enjoy, think about, and engage in creativity and creative thought.

I think that caregivers, NHS staff, and anyone who works in healthcare are superheroes. They have been routinely forgotten about and made to work in horrendous conditions. Anything to support and make work better for them is worth it. The funding announcement the other week is a great start, but the underfunding of the NHS and the non-NHS care staff, this kind of approach has destroyed quite a lot of what could have been an innovative arts and health scene in England. In the 90s and early noughties, we had lots of arts programmes: artists in residence in hospitals, big galleries and museums interested in supporting art. That did fall away quite substantially under austerity and huge numbers of art workers were made redundant or restructured. We are seeing a resurgence with the focus on holistic wellbeing and care staff out of the pandemic. When I started at Paintings in Hospitals, there was always this feeling that we were on the brink of something really interesting. Some of the projects that Paintings in Hospitals is working on now could be so fantastic in the future and it’s nice to think of being at the forefront of what arts and healthcare could be.

What is it you think the charity can ultimately achieve as we work together?

I’d like to see us become a major advocate for arts and health: advocating for more funding, better work conditions, and better projects. It’s hard to do the frontline work that takes up so much time and is so important, and then still have time left to do the bigger picture stuff - the talks at conferences, in parliament, be in the right room at the right time. I think with new ways of streamlined working, it will give us the space to advocate. I think this would be a huge plus for the whole of the arts and health sector. We were involved in the Artemisia Gentileschi loan from the National Gallery. That was a project that I didn’t think would ever be able to happen. How would it be possible to put a priceless artwork in a GP practice? The reason it was possible is because everyone involved knew why it was needed and what they had to do for it to happen. It’s important to be doing those kinds of grand, impressive projects. I would advocate for that: to go above and beyond, do something special.

What is your favourite piece in the collection?

I have a couple, but when it boils down to it, it’s Annie Albers’ Orange Meander. I think Annie Albers was an exceptional artist. I firmly believe in democratic art and the Bauhaus movement, and I think this print is just beautiful. It’s a lovely thing to have in our collection. People really like it; I love it. I wish I could look at it right now, but it’s on loan in Yorkshire!

Anni Albers, Orange Meander, 1970. Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection.

Anni Albers, Orange Meander, 1970. Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection.