Art in hospitals

a crowd of people applaud on a stage; in the front is a person wearing a pale blue suit speaking into a microphone
Curtain call for Our National Health Stories with Kwame Kwei-Armah. Photo: Chris Payne.

This article was first published at, 8 February 2024.

Hospital arts programmes are flourishing thanks to a national network and a groundswell of support for such initiatives, as Laura Waters explains.

2024 marks a pivotal year for the National Arts in Hospital Network (NAHN) as it integrates with NHS Charities Together, expanding its reach and impact. Founded in 2019, the network was originally established to support and alleviate the often solitary and challenging roles of hospital arts managers.

Arts managers in UK hospitals make a huge difference to the environments in which they work, through a wide range of art initiatives including art exhibitions, public art commissions, live music, theatre and dance, creative workshops and training. Despite working frequently in part-time or small-team environments, with limited financial certainty, their contribution to recovery and wellbeing for patients, staff and visitors to hospitals is substantial.

There are over 100 trusts joining together through the national network and its regional groups, providing much needed support and networking opportunities to members and hospitals arts programmes throughout the UK and beyond. 

Developing national project work

NAHN has already delivered some impressive national projects. In 2020, over 50 original rainbow artworks donated to the NHS by Damien Hirst were distributed through the network for display in hospitals. Hirst said: “I wanted to do something to support the many people who are risking their lives to help those in need during this time of crisis. The rainbow is a sign of hope and I’m so pleased to have released these prints to help fund the brilliant work being done by NHS staff across the country.” 

During the pandemic, the network also distributed Boredom Busters, a new patient resource developed by University Hospitals of Bristol and Weston, and featuring many famous contributors including David Dimbleby, Grayson Perry and Kalpna Woolf. Over 10,000 issues have since been distributed to hospitals to reduce boredom and anxiety for patients. 

In summer 2023, NAHN commissioned the first ever national tour of a sculpture across UK hospitals. Colouring Adult Eczema by Julia Vogl and Peter Hudson toured 12 hospital sites in partnership with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. 

Our National Health Stories

The pandemic catalysed a lasting shift in focus from patient experience to staff wellbeing, opening the door for arts managers to develop a creative offer to support staff in their hospitals. Many staff had turned instinctively to the arts during the pandemic to support their own wellbeing as well as that of their patients, and arts and culture now play a central role in staff wellbeing in many of our hospitals, from staff choirs to art clubs and exhibitions of staff artwork. This change was brought to prominence in the ambitious national project Our National Health Stories.

Our National Health Stories demonstrated the power of the arts in healthcare through an unprecedented collaboration between 19 member trusts and a creative team led by Kwame Kwei-Armah. Funded by Arts Council England, NHS Charities Together and NHS England, the project saw the trusts join forces to deliver a full range of staff creative wellbeing projects which built upon, and shone a light on, the incredible, diverse talents of our NHS staff. 

In the 75th anniversary year of the National Health Service, the programme engaged thousands of NHS staff to explore, share and reflect upon what being part of the NHS means to them, what it stands for, and the impact it has had on their lives. Each unique story was told through artwork of different forms – music, poetry, drawings, paintings, film – developed during a six-month nationwide engagement programme by and with staff.

Our National Health Stories culminated last November, with a day-long series of events in hospitals taking place as a relay across England, followed by a live show at the newly opened Aviva Studios, home to Factory International, in Manchester. This series of events created a vivid portrait of the NHS in its 75th year through the lens of art, celebrating individual stories and collective experiences. You can find out about this project and view the performances here.

Comprehensive online resource

The move to NHS Charities Together in 2024 will see the network connect with many more hospitals across the whole UK, supporting the growth of arts and culture in our hospitals and bringing new opportunities to share best practice, develop national and regional projects, and to advocate more widely for arts in health at a national, and international level.

Hospital arts programmes are flourishing thanks to NAHN and a groundswell of support for arts in health initiatives more generally. As a network, the aim is for every hospital in the UK to engage their staff and patients through the arts to promote health and wellbeing.

As part of this ambition, NAHN is delighted to announce a new initiative supported by Arts Council England: to develop a comprehensive online resource to provide guidelines and support on best practice for arts in hospitals. This new toolkit launching in autumn will guide hospitals in embedding arts within their healthcare framework, ensuring a holistic approach to wellbeing. 

It's an exciting time for arts in health, as both demand for the work and the evidence base is growing. The work of NAHN is helping to reinforce the integral role that the arts can, and should, play in healthcare in creating more vibrant and therapeutic environment in our hospitals. 

Laura Waters is Head of Arts for the University Hospitals of Derby and Burton.
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@LauraWatersUHDB | @AirArtsUHDB 

For further information on NAHN: Contact the author Laura Waters or Guy Noble, UCLH Arts and Heritage, University College London Hospitals.