Margaret Proudfoot has been with us for twenty years. In this interview, she tells us the changes she's observed within Paintings in Hospitals and in healthcare more generally, and why she still enjoys working with us after all this time.

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

I have worked with Paintings in Hospitals in many capacities – it will have been twenty years this year in fact! Initially, I applied for an artist residency working with a group of elderly women in a care home. The Artbridge Project placed 18 artists in different homes, over two years. This led to installing exhibitions at the Sheridan Russell Gallery near Baker Street, which then was Paintings in Hospitals’ home. In 2004 we moved premises to Southwark Street, including the Menier Gallery, and I became a permanent member of staff.

I’ve had curatorial responsibilities, I’ve worked nationally across our showcase hospitals: visiting sites, helping with re-hangs, and working with volunteers. When we’ve had gallery spaces, I worked with exhibitors, which included a three-year stint of working with CSM curation students, getting a new generation of curators to think about healthcare sites as spaces for visual art. I was involved with setting up our new premises following both moves. Throughout that time, my role has been to maintain and prepare the collection for works to go out on loan. I get artworks looking as good as they can for the sites they’re going to, ready to transport and to securely install. While I’m not a conservator and don’t repair the works, I can reattach prints that have come loose, repair and clean frames, occasionally evict insects and assess when conservation work needs to be done.

How would you describe what the charity does?

We use the visual arts to improve people’s experience of healthcare.

We aim to improve a wide range of healthcare spaces for all the users there: for staff, visitors and patients alike. We are broadening the ways that we reach people. As a team, we all have different ways of imagining what can be done. We have new digital projects, direct access projects, they’re all ways of using this funny visual language. For me, as someone working directly with the collection, it’s about getting the artworks somewhere to make an environment better. If you are confined in a space, we aim to give you a way out of that space when you can’t physically leave. It’s always been amazing to get feedback when we’ve been rehanging work in hospitals and seeing the extent to which members of staff almost adopt pieces! Using their favourites as navigation points or distance markers for breath or walking tests.

What’s the most important thing that Paintings in Hospitals does?

As someone who makes things, the visual is my language. For the people it speaks to, it makes a world of difference. It seldom offends the people it doesn’t speak to – they can just walk past!

We all have things that make us tick, and the visual is part of my language. I think that applies to most of us here. I was never going to be a doctor, but I care about people. When younger, I was a very nervous patient, which was one reason I chose to make work for hospitals. I am less so these days. I see healthcare sites as work environments that lots of people use and that can be made better. I was talking to a friend recently about what they used to call the ‘bloods room’ in Dulwich Community Hospital, which has been demolished recently. Paintings in Hospitals used to have artworks in there. This was a room with no external windows. It had some of our pictures, hung in a rather higgledy-piggledy fashion, but they were absolutely perfect because every time I went there I could drift off rather than focus on waiting for a test. You’d just sit there gazing. You had all these views out of this windowless room.

Why do you work for Paintings in Hospitals? What do you think the charity can ultimately achieve as we work together?

My family background includes a mixture of artists, teachers, museums people and medics. I said in my 60 Year 60 Voices piece that my mum spent over a year in hospital as a child. I know that isn’t everybody’s experience of healthcare, but we are all going to have times when we get ill. I like working with motivated people and feeling that we’re making a difference. I don’t know about ultimately as I think it’s always a work in progress. We’re responding to a continuously changing environment out there. The health service has always been a changing environment.

The pandemic has created hugely different problems and, one hopes, opportunities, as people perhaps now have a greater understanding of the difference the visual can make in difficult times.

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

Most regularly, given how long I’ve been here, I’ve enjoyed working with our team, generations of remarkable colleagues, partners and volunteers. I used to teach before working at Paintings in Hospitals and I enjoy sharing my skills a lot, so working with other people is a great pleasure. Receiving feedback when I’ve been out on site and meeting people has always been great too. For several years I was regularly at UCLH, moving things around, swapping pictures over, getting people stopping and discussing what you were about to put on the wall, or walking slowly along the corridor display and reading every bit of interpretation.

Which is your favourite piece in the collection?

Oh, goodness! The one I’ve said in the past, and I do still really like, is Connection 1 by Norie Hatakeyama. It’s a woven piece. It’s very organic, despite being quite big. It’s visually quite light but has a complexity and a continuous quality to it. Because it’s woven, it doesn’t have a beginning or end, it is peaceful and calm. It’s not the easiest piece to exhibit! There are many other pieces, it’s hard to choose.

Norie Hatakeyama, Connection I, 1996. Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection.

Norie Hatakeyama, Connection I, 1996Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection.