In 2016, we partnered with the Wallace Collection to commission artist Tom Ellis to produce contemporary artworks for four GP surgeries in London as part of a project called Works Like People II.

As a small charity, we have limited opportunities to gain first-hand experience of the ways in which staff and patients engage with our artworks in the context of specific care environments. This evaluation aimed to enhance our understanding of exactly how people experience art in primary care settings.


Ethnographic observations were undertaken in two waiting rooms in which the artworks were installed. To understand differences and similarities between viewing artwork in a waiting room and viewing it in a gallery, observations were undertaken at Tom Ellis’s companion exhibition at Hertford House. Findings from the observations were supplemented by:

  • A focus group with locals in a community wellbeing centre adjoined to one of the GP surgeries
  • Interviews with GP managers and reception staff
  • An interview with the artist
  • Interviews with staff from Paintings in Hospitals and the Wallace Collection.



  • The artworks were a point of discussion between some patients and between some patients and staff.
  • Some staff used the artwork as an icebreaker to put patients at ease.
  • Discussions were often prompted because patients and staff looked for meaning in the artworks, which they found complex.


The two waiting rooms where observations took place were very different. One was small, dark and filled with visual and aural noise. The other was spacious with high ceilings, lots of light and minimal aural and visual clutter.

  • In the more cluttered space, patients spoke to each other and made eye contact more frequently than in the more minimal space.
  • No difference between the level of engagement with the artworks at the two sites was observed.


  • In both waiting rooms the seating faced away from the artworks.
  • Patients and visitors often focused on their mobile phones, leaflets, posters and information screens and did not look around the space.
  • The style of the artworks was considered unexpected in a GP surgery, for example, many people expected something smaller and more colourful.


  • The majority of patients who took part in engagement activities relating to the artworks did not like or understand the artworks at first.
  • An interest and appreciation of the artworks was developed over time and resulted in meaningful discussions about the artworks and broader ideas and issues.
  • Patients did not sit and look at the artworks but a small number of intense engagements were observed.

Conclusions & implications

The findings suggest:

  • Art can have an important role in supporting communication between patients and staff.
  • If the artwork is not immediately liked or understood, it can prompt discussion.
  • Engagement activities support staff, patients and visitors to access artworks by enabling them to discuss, appreciate and understand them.

The research raises questions about:

  • How artworks should be selected for healthcare settings and the extent to which patient, visitor and staff preferences should influence these decisions.

More research is required to understand:

  • How artworks can become focal points in such aesthetically and socially complex spaces.

Presentations & publications

This evaluation has been presented at the following conferences and will soon be published in a peer-reviewed journal:

  • First International Research Conference on Arts and Dementia: Theory, Methodology and Evidence (Royal Society for Public Health, London, March 2017)
  • Association of Art Historians' Annual Conference and Art Book Fair 2017 (Loughborough University, April 2017)
  • Culture, Health and Wellbeing International Conference 2017 (Bristol, June 2017)
  • European Healthcare Design Conference 2017 (Royal College of Physicians, London, June 2017)

See more about our Works Like People II project...