Opinion: We can do better with some decent art around us

A few weeks ago, I took part in a seminar at the Barbican in London at the request of Sir John Tusa, its departing managing director.

Julia Neuberger
Julia Neuberger

My subject was the arts as something to live for, giving people a sense of moral purpose. This first interested me in my time as chief executive of the King's Fund, when we developed the Enhancing the Healing Environment programme. The project gave each of London's hospitals a grant of £35,000 and initiated a development programme in which hospital nurses, patients and estates managers worked together to improve their premises. 

We often fail to notice our surroundings. But some NHS properties have areas so terrible that no one could fail to spot them - trolleys parked so they are all too easy to trip over, for example, or rubbish everywhere. The original King's Fund programme was successful beyond our wildest dreams. It has since covered mental health, primary care and hospice and palliative care services. Signs of success include greater staff retention and happier patients. No one doubts its huge impact.

Nevertheless, some people think spending money on the physical environment is wasteful and that everything should be spent on patient care. That attitude is equally common in the voluntary sector. It is fine to sit in dingy premises doing 'good work' because the money is there for the clients. But if it's clear that clients do better and call on services less if the premises of voluntary organisations are bright and attractive, with interesting artwork to look at, you might think it would be a no-brainer to spend money to improve the environment. Indeed, not to do so is to deny the undeniable connection between our environment and how we feel about ourselves.

We need a shift in attitude. People need to worry less about criticism over spending money on something not directly client-focused, such as nicer premises, artwork or even staff training, and look instead at what such an enhanced environment might bring. Fundraisers are rightly nervous of what the public - or media - might say about overhead costs, but the public is not stupid. If they can see that staff are happier in better surroundings, and provide a better service as a result, they will not begrudge the additional expenditure - it will easily be recouped in better client services and less costs for recruitment.

Art in the environment seems to unlock people's own creativity. Heritage Ceramics, an education and training charity in west London, demonstrates this in the work it does with severely ill and vulnerable people, for example. Its clients produce wonderful pots and express themselves with clay. It shows that the very act of making something beautiful can make people more content. This applies to all of us. Having art around us and doing some creative work ourselves can make us behave better and relate to people differently. That must be worth doing. What we need now is the specialist arts organisations to show us how the arts can change our lives - making us more productive and bringing benefits to more people as a result of our environment.

And while we're on the subject...

Heritage Ceramics was founded in 1984 by a group of African artists and designers. It runs programmes of training in all aspects of ceramics, pottery and sculpture from its studio in Greenford, Middlesex, and has outreach projects in local communities. It also works in schools, teaching art as part of the national curriculum.

- The King's Fund launched its Enhancing the Healing Environment programme in 2001. Since then, it has invested more than £2m in maintaining and improving the environment of London's hospitals. It is also encouraging and educating NHS staff to effect practical, value-for-money environmental improvements in hospitals.

- The project's principles are similar to those of Harald Szeemann, the late Swiss art historian, who said: "Art is part of a creative environment. Good art often anticipates social development. Many artists also see themselves as researchers. Managers and scientists may find inspiration in art if they are receptive to it."

- BTCV, the environmental conservation volunteering charity, opened its £1.8m headquarters last October. Sedum House in Doncaster is made from recycled materials and features low-energy heating and lighting. The charity says the offices have given it a better image, enhanced training facilities and improved staff communication.

- Julia Neuberger is a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering. 

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