Chelsea and Westminster Hospital Arts Project: early days

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 21 December 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1634
  1. Tony Delamothe, deputy editora
  1. a BMJ, London WC1H 9JR

    Dotted through this week's journal are reproductions of works from the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital Arts Project. Opened in 1993, the hospital resembles a modern art gallery adorning the capital of some oil rich state. Brochures describing the hospital bristle with superlatives: the transparent plastic roof “covers the world's largest naturally ventilated atrium,” an area even larger than Wembley Stadium.

    In this atrium the exhibits genuinely seem bigger and bolder than those from more modest establishments. Sculptures soar 18 metres into the air; mobiles and banners twist and flutter from their mountings five storeys up. Enormous canvasses have enough space to breathe. The pieces have been selected with flair, good artistic judgment, and what looks like bags of cash.

    Rarely can such a positive outcome have had such a desultory beginning: the last agenda item of the last meeting of the medical executive committee overseeing the closure of six London hospitals to make way for the new Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. The questions that needed resolving were who was going to take responsibility for the art collections of the hospitals being closed and who would decide which art would go into the new hospital. A three man committee was set up, which metamorphosed into the arts project.

    Confronted by the designs of the new hospital, James Scott, consultant orthopaedic surgeon and project chairman, “realised that we had this enormous space and we needed to fill it with colour.” So he rang up local but world famous artists Allen Jones and Patrick Heron. “They came to the hospital when it was building site and said ‘Whoopee’.”

    With the realisation that the space was best suited to sculpture came the realisation that the project couldn't afford to fill them with commissions—for example, the Allen Jones sculpture “Acrobat” cost £100 000. So the project began approaching any organisations that might have unexhibited sculpture in their collections: the Arts Council, Contemporary Art Society, Henry Moore Trust, Tate Gallery.

    Although sculpture dominates the atrium, original works in most media are displayed around the hospital. The chapel houses Veronese's Resurrection, inherited from Westminster Hospital. The performing arts are also receiving increasing attention. Weekly performances—whether of music, dance, theatre, storytelling, mime, or puppetry—are provided for patients in wards or for everyone on the hospital's stage or in the main mall.


    “The music was initially the most difficult and unpopular part of the project. Many staff and patients found any noise and dance distracting and intrusive. We consulted as widely as possible and changed the times of the performances around. Now we have an orchestra in residence (the City of London Sinfonia), and there is often a minor outcry if performances have to be cancelled. We had what we believe to be the first festival of music in a hospital last year, and we hope that will be able to repeat it annually. The acoustics in the hospital are particularly good. I was in the hospital some months ago in the middle of the night and a saxophonist was playing alone on the stage. It was very haunting and beautiful.”—


    “The Acrobat” by Allen Jones


    “We have tried to give some priority to artists who live or work locally; Allen used to live near the old hospital. I wanted to fill the atria with colour and suggested to him a monumental steel dancer. I wanted it to be even higher but that would have meant one of the limbs projecting too far into the main body of the hospital. The design had to be agreed before the hospital was finished as its base is incorporated into the foundations. Many generous supporters gave large sums of money, and this piece really launched the arts project and showed us what we might be able to do.”—


    Next phase

    Scott believes that finally everything is coming right: “People now seem quite happy to work in such a place.” He talks of getting to a stage where “we could slow down a bit,” but there are few signs of that yet.

    The project is currently pinning its hopes on getting a lottery grant of £600 000 to purchase pieces that it has already identified (many of them already on loan to the hospital). It wants to continue its collaboration with its two local art schools—the Chelsea College of Art and the Royal College of Art—and raise more money for music. Scott talks wistfully of having both a poet and a playwright in residence. The project would like to commission an indoor garden from Jeanne Bliss “because gardens are so popular.”

    The project has already bought 700 works, but its coordinator, Susan Loppert wants to have something on every wall. Loans from public bodies, galleries, and private individuals are helping her to achieve her aims, “especially now they realise that we have a significant and substantial collection of contemporary British art.”

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