Illustration by Yan Shi

Art has long been suspected to play a role in both our mental and our physical health. The Cambridgeshire-based charity Arts and Minds, for example, organises artist-led workshops, and cites evidence to support the value of its work on its website, noting that in previous participant surveys, 76% of respondents reported an increase in wellbeing. And though with a different group in mind, this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas will feature a talk on using art in prisons as a form of rehabilitation. But what about using hospitals as an artistic venue to display pieces? Perhaps this could improve health and well-being too.

“They hoped to ‘reduce stress, speed up recovery and aid the healing process’ of their patients”

When staying in hospital or visiting relatives, walking the sad and endless clinical halls can soon become a miserable and pessimistic chore. That’s why Broomfield Hospital in Essex decided to start an art project, lining the corridors with photography, prints, drawings, etchings and paintings. In doing so, they hoped to “reduce stress, speed up recovery and aid the healing process” of their patients. The rumoured £400,000-plus investment didn’t please all, though. One critic remarked: "If people donate artwork for free then fair enough, but that money should have been spent on things that really help sick people – nurses, cleaners, equipment and drugs.”

Hence, I felt guilty that for quite a while I didn’t even notice the artwork around me at Broomfield when I went regularly to visit my grandad this summer. As soon as I did though, the coffee run soon became a pleasant experience and I was captivated, peering down each corridor to see what type of work they might have on display. Even in the most unusual of places, I would begin to spot pieces I hadn’t noticed before.

Art therapy has been used as a recovery technique from mental illness and to stave off lonelinessStux/Pixabay

When in a bit of a rush, for example, you might walk past the striking mechanical structure printed on one of the ground-floor walls. Why on earth is that crane there? The question bugged me as I queued in line at Costa. Then I read the accompanying plaque. The piece was by Simon Ryder, and attempted to link coastal structures to hospital patients: “If you imagine the atrium space between the old and new hospitals as the Thames Estuary, then outpatients can be seen as the coastline of Essex, with its four entrances, network of corridors and waiting areas taking the place of estuaries, rivers, channels and lagoons.”

“Research suggests that art activities can play a key role in reducing depression and loneliness”

His tenuous link didn’t do much for me, but I nonetheless found the project an interesting one. Carol Farrow had some unique looking abstract paintings in one of the ground-floor waiting rooms, and when I was heading back up to the second floor, I noticed some minuscule etchings by the lift. Also by Simon Ryder, the small pieces were Perspex postcards featuring sketches inspired by his coastal journeys.

While I could understand the frustration of previous critics, I wasn’t too sure how I felt about the Broomfield art project. Sure, when they bought the pieces in 2010, the alleged £400,000-plus cost was a lot to spend. This summer, my grandad’s MRI scan came around a week later than normal after one of Broomfield’s expensive machines broke. Could that money have been saved for eventualities like this? I’m not sure.

What I do know is that the project lightened the corridors a bit, and that initiatives like this would give patients something to admire as they navigate the often sad, urban jungles of UK hospitals. Furthermore, research suggests that art activities can play a key role in reducing depression and loneliness. Arts and Minds are building upon this research by hosting weekly art workshops in Cambridge this autumn for people experiencing depression, anxiety and/or other mental health problems. Though exhibiting art in hospitals may have its downsides, it definitely channels this successful idea of artistic experience as a form of recovery.


Mountain View

Home is where the heart is at Prints: In Situ

It seems to me as though recuperation procedures will begin to incorporate more schemes like this, recognising the role of art in health, even if some are still sceptical. Maybe we'll see even more art on the walls of Addenbrooke's soon enough. 

To take part in the Arts for Positive Mental Health workshops hosted by Arts and Minds in Cambridge this autumn, or to refer someone you know, email the charity at