The aesthetic of our surroundings has the power either significantly to enrich or reduce our levels of wellbeing. Of course, healthcare environments, such as hospitals or doctors’ and dental surgeries and waiting rooms, are all designed primarily with practicality and end purpose in mind, creating safe and hygienic places to deliver acts of care, aide safe healing and offer a standardised treatment to users. But what if this environment is also home for a patient or inhabitant?

How does the environment affect the wellbeing of patients and staff who have to or have chosen to reside there daily, as is the case with care homes? And how can art and design enhance these environments to achieve more than just the practical, by creating an environment representing personalised care, expressly designed to aid the healing process, reduce stress, lift spirits, provide stimulation and humanise the clinical setting?

The philosopher and artist Hilary Lawson theorises that human wellbeing is achieved through a series of open visual interactions. In the natural environment, visual experiences are open-ended and spontaneous, so that a sunset or a walk along the beach provides us with an evolving stimulus, enabling the human brain to work within the abstract, finding colour, narrative and story and leading to an increased sense of wellbeing through openness to stimulation.

In stark contrast, when we, as a society, elect to punish people, for example within a prison environment, the aesthetic is deliberately designed to restrict visual stimulation, with prisoners afforded limited views of the outside world or of any moving or spontaneous scenes. In such an environment, the brain has no opportunity to form stories, make connections or experience sensory movement, leading to a feeling of what Lawson calls ‘closure’, where wellbeing is subsequently restricted.

As a leading UK-based art consultancy, ARTIQ always seeks to explore and understand the relationship between art and wellbeing. Through curating art collections for the workplace, hospitality and residential sectors, our research and case studies have demonstrated a strong link between carefully-curated art within an environment and the direct benefits it brings to the wellbeing of those who use them through stress reduction, the opportunity for expression and discussion, increasing staff productivity and the promotion of creativity.

Naturally, we’re by no means the first to notice or record the wellness benefits of art around us. Florence Nightingale once wrote that ‘Little as we know about the way in which we are affected by form, by colour, and light, we do know this, that they have an actual physical effect. Variety of form and brilliancy of colour in the objects presented to patients, are actual means of recovery.’

The Department of Health and Arts Council England-backed initiative A Prospectus for Arts and Health explores a number of case studies where art was implemented in clinical settings across the UK and measured for impact on staff and patient wellbeing. The findings included an increased sense of ownership for patients through being able to interpret art, the ability to humanise a corporate, unpersonalised environment and an increase in staff productivity, with the provision of art seen to be valuing the input of staff who then, in turn, perform better and have the power to distract patients from their illness.

In the hospital sector in the UK, these benefits could have a direct impact on an underfunded NHS, for example, with links established showing the benefits of art in the healing environment leading to reduced hospital stays by one day, for example; a reduction in the length of labour by 2.1 hours and depression levels reduced by a third in patients undergoing chemotherapy. A particular case study at Sheffield even reports a reduction in the amount of painkillers taken by patients when art was in the environment.

If we accept the role art has to play in wellbeing, particularly for those in a long-term non-domestic environment, such as a care home, what type of art actually improves wellbeing? At ARTIQ, we have discovered that medium and subject do not have to be limited or manipulated in order to create a sense of wellbeing. We believe that the benefits to wellness through art are seen when wide varieties of work are accessible to all, able to be freely interpreted and promoting discussion and opinion (positive or negative) to empower the viewer to find narratives within the art autonomously.

Joanna Wakefield, Art Director at Art St George’s, a charitable trust set up by St George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust with one of the country’s largest art collections, believes that abstract art is a particularly powerful medium to enable patients and staff to find their own narratives, noting that the nature of the art within their collection is purposefully without subject bias, whilst leaning away from dark colours and macabre scenes towards bold, textured abstract works with plenty of room for interpretation and reflection.

Art itself, interestingly enough, has always been interested in illness itself as subject matter too. Historically, medical illness was often depicted in art through a literal lens, with the Renaissance period producing anatomically-focussed works by artists fascinated with exploring the human form and who loved displaying the anatomical workings of the body, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. With the birth of Abstraction towards the end of the 19th century through movements such as Romanticism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Expressionism, illness within art became a matter of interpretation, whilst narrative was formed through colour, texture and shape.
If there are proven links between art and wellbeing in the healing environment, then why are care homes not full of art? For hospitals, of course, there are practical problems for some forms of art in a clinical setting, including fibres and textures that are impractical at best and at worst, dangerous in a sterilised environment, restricting art’s location to public areas and corridors. But for care homes such concerns rarely apply, with patients’ rooms, where less-mobile inhabitants will spend a lot of time, an ideal place for well-chosen and stimulating art.

Across the UK, there are currently a number of charitable arts trusts, with initiatives such as patient and staff exhibitions, in-house art collections and participatory art programmes, which playing a crucial role in highlighting the benefits and quantifying the evidence of art in the healing environment.
As providers of art and artists, we certainly believe that the art industry must continue to research the benefits of engaging with art outside of the traditional gallery setting and play a role in procuring and creating art suitable for various healthcare settings. Digital art, video art and work made out of clinically-safe materials are feasible options in negating any safety risks and ensuring that art within the healing environment can be accessible for all and housed within the places it is especially needed.

Throughout the last century, we have seen health care move away from institutions and towards a personalised care service. We believe that the link between art and design and the benefits of enhanced wellbeing for patients and staff could not only lead to financial savings within the state sector through reduced stays and direct healthcare benefits, but also be a vital tool in both the state and private care home sectors by helping to create truly individualised and holistic healing environments for all.

by Melody Patman, Marketing Manager