Podcast Transcript – Hospital Rooms Curator Niamh White

Conversations and advice


Hospital Rooms’ digital video series unveils the stories behind the artwork created in some of the UK’s most challenging mental health settings. Curator, Niamh White explains the inspiration behind their film series and workshops, and how a “little digital adventure” they went on with their Space supported project has become the backbone to their business.

Below is the transcript of the conversation.


Listen to Niamh


Niamh White (Curator of Hospital Rooms), Fiona Morris (Creative Director of The Space) and Clare Freeman (Podcast Producer)


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 0:01

What happens when you make great pieces of art by well known artists, showcased in places which make a huge impact on the lives of those engaging in these spaces, but barely anyone knows? That’s the quandary the project called Hospital Rooms found themselves in. But this isn’t an episode just about turning artwork into short film series. It’s also about how arts and culture companies are surviving during testing times.


Niamh White 0:34

The COVID 19 pandemic has made us go almost entirely digital. We’re now reaching more patients in one session than we were in a year.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 0:45

We’ll find out how and why with Niamh in a moment. Welcome to The Space Arts Podcast. I’m Claire Freeman, a freelance associate with The Space. I’ve been working as a mentor on some of their funding projects and Culture In Quarantine commission’s for the last couple of years. And that’s given me a wide insight into seeing how the agency really inspires and encourages artists, museums, theatre companies, and other cultural types to understand what it really takes to make a piece of digital work sparkle. Have a look at some of the great resources, by the way, on the website, www.thespace.org. And we hope by listening to this series, you’ll be motivated to start your own digital exploration, with or without the help of The Space.

The topic of today’s episode continues around our theme of audiences, reaching them on the ground, reaching them online, and ultimately reaching more of them. The first foray into films and digital workshops was something new to Niamh White and Hospital Rooms. What her and her team did in 2020 is fantastic. It’s inspiring. They’re working with NHS Trusts and mental health units anyway, and that’s incredibly difficult and complex, let alone during a global pandemic. And we should also add, something not covered in this interview, that amidst the launch of this film series Niamh also had her first child as the Coronavirus lockdown happened. So, before the year was out myself and Fiona Morris, Chief Executive of The Space, were grateful to have a few moments of Niamh’s time to capture their progress on tape. But first, it seems appropriate to give you a taster of some of the people Hospital Rooms works with and the impact their work has, through a clip from their film series. So put your feet up, pop your headphones on, grab a pen and paper to jot down moments of inspiration. Here’s the clip. And then Niamh begins our conversation by explaining what inspired the ethos behind hospital rooms in the first place.


Excerpt from Hospital Rooms 3:00

SPEAKER 1: My name is Steve McLeod, I’m an artist who contributes to Hospital Rooms projects. I have a bipolar condition, I was diagnosed in 2000. And was sectioned and have gone through the sort of system myself.

SPEAKER 2: My name is Mark Tichner, I’m an artist based in London. During the workshop process, I was talking to a service user who was telling me about how she collected kind of positive affirmations. So that idea of a kind of affirmative voice entered into the work of that point. But also I wanted it to be kind of, you know, like, not like some bossy life coach, but you know, like, it’s like a friend, whose got your back.

SPEAKER 1: You know, we always go on about how art is good for our lives and creativity is good for the soul. But this is taking it right down to something that really should be a requirement for every NHS trust.

SPEAKER 3: To have somebody come along and invite you to take part in a workshop and listen to you and talk to you as an equal. That really validates you as a human being.


Niamh White 4:20

Basically, Hospital Rooms was co founded by myself and my partner, Tim Shaw. He’s an artist and I’m a curator. We’d worked in the arts for a really long time in galleries and museums. He had a studio practice prior to starting the charity, and basically, one of our friends was sectioned after a suicide attempt. It was the first occasion that we had to actually visit a mental health unit. And we were really shocked to be honest with you. You know, the space where our friend was incredibly vulnerable, very unwell, feeling at her lowest ebb and when she opened her eyes, what was communicated to her was not, there’s hope for the future, there is vibrancy, there is creativity, there is culture, but actually something incredibly sterile and stark, and, unfortunately, also rundown. It was the last place, we wanted our friend to be at that very moment, when when all we wanted for her was hope.

And it was there that the idea came about. So we wanted to bring our community, the artist community that we worked with, into these spaces to really challenge what they look like and how they can feel. And, you know, try and instil people with some dignity and to feel some value. The artists can do that, they can do that in a really fundamental, humane way. And really importantly, we wanted the people using those services and receiving care and giving care to also have a really strong voice in creating those artworks. So that’s what Hospital Rooms kind of came from. And now that’s exactly what we do. We bring world class artists from Julian Opie, to Sonia Boyce, to various others, into these spaces that are so often invisible. So often, down the end of the corridor, the end of the road. And we work with the community there. And we make extraordinary artworks that are safe and compliant to those clinical spaces with the idea that we want to give people that hope. A lot of the time, our audiences are incredibly small, you know, these units provide care to maybe 12 to 18 patients at a time, they have very severe diagnoses, they have very high levels of dependency and care. But that shouldn’t compromise any of the quality of the work. We spend a lot of time on the units. Projects often take a year to complete. But within these very small groups. And that’s why the opportunity with The Space was so exciting, because suddenly we had the opportunity to tell the stories of what we’ve been doing to a much larger audience.


Painting by Yinka Ilori
Painting by Yinka Ilori – Atrium Detail, Springfield Hospital. Photographer Damian Griffiths.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 7:19

So this is a unique perspective, Fiona, on what audiences really are, how big they should be, and what impact they should have.


Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space 7:30

Yeah, and I think what’s amazing about Niamh and Tim’s work, about Hospital Rooms’ work, is that it is about…because you hear it in the films when the people who are within those environments, they talk about being seen and noticed and included. By its nature, the work they’re doing is about intimacy. And it is about safe spaces, and it is about hope and things that you don’t want to massively over amplify – that experience should be cherished at the scale that it’s delivered. What is really important, and what has happened with the films and I’m so pleased, is the mission and the core of what Hospital Rooms exists to do is now being talked about by more people.

And that has the impact and the effect, I hope, of bringing many more artists into the ambit of the organisation who want to contribute and be part of this work. It increases the number of funders and other people who are aware of the value of the work that’s being done here. And I think it probably also just makes all of us a little bit more…as Niamh said, you don’t always want to have to wait until a friend is in crisis, in this situation, to realise something is not as it should be – you could be doing something to improve it. So what’s great is hopefully, lots of other people are also applying this and thinking, ‘okay, so hang on a second, this is what they’re doing in this environment with their artform. What might I be able to do? And how can I maybe fundraise or increase the reach of something by talking about the work I’m doing in an online context?’ So I think you wouldn’t want to over expose the actual projects, albeit that the works of art are beautiful and it’s a privilege to get a little slice of them in the films. But actually, the important message in the online iteration of this is to describe the nature and the outcome of the work.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 9:38

I mean, how do you make it happen Niamh? You had this idea – we want to get it out there, we want to do the films How did you make that become reality?


Niamh White 9:48

I mean, day to day, we are so blessed and so lucky because we’re surrounded by these incredibly creative people, you know, these fantastic artists who astound us every day with the proposals that they come back with, the interpretations they give of the experiences they hear from patients, and how they overcome the regulations in a clinical setting. We meet patients who have incredible life experiences, who have knowledge of lots of different things, whether it’s academic, whether it’s travel, whether it’s hobbies, anything, who contribute fully and in a really meaningful way to the projects. And we also find these NHS heroes, these bright sparks that actually open the door and allow us to come in. And so, in one way, it’s easy because the stories are so fantastic and just being there, and just listening to them is wonderful.

But I think that was what was frustrating in one way, because we were the only ones hearing them. On our website and a lot of the time on social media, what you would see of Hospital Rooms is a beautiful, professionally shot photograph of an artwork within a hospital. But of course, no people because that’s not allowed. And very few voices, even though they had really, really informed the artworks. We can’t film on the units or anything like that. So actually, there was that big chasm where the whole story of Hospital Rooms was really not being communicated. So it was really about thinking, how can we do that? How can we give this well rounded picture of all these amazing people and the ideas they have, and how they’ve contributed. And it was really working closely with the hospital teams to be able to try and draw those things out.

I mean, we used a lot of different kinds of assets to be able to do it. So we had just still photographs that you could pan over, we had some 3D animations of the artwork, so it felt like you were kind of walking through. And then we put a lot of effort into getting those different voices in. Artists came to our studio, and did those interviews with us. We got permission to go into a forensic unit. And we interviewed, I think about 15 or 16 different patients anonymously. And that was a real coup, because those people are never heard, you know, we never hear from them. And then we also have really great relationships with patients who actually get discharged, and have gone through the process with us, but then are at home. So we interviewed some people at home as well. So it was really about picking out all these people and really trying to highlight all the things that they had contributed.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 12:56

Yeah, I suppose it offers people a different way to interact with the art because even if you walk through an art gallery, there is the little square in the corner, the tiny black and white writing, that need a magnifying glass to read. But nevertheless, it’s there. And we’re hearing more from galleries and museums that want to offer a bit more context behind the exhibitions that they have. In terms of rights, because this can sometimes be something that I think a lot of people fear, I remember when I was working as a journalist, even walking past a piece of art in the background of an interview for the news was actually copyright infringement. So I was like, ‘what!’ I remember being a junior reporter, like, ‘oh, I can’t use any of those shots,’ because it’s got, I can’t even remember what the painting was in the background. I was like, ‘damn, can’t do it.’ But you can sometimes be quite fearful about understanding how to clear these rights, how to talk with artists, liaise with the artists, deal with contracts, how to work with freelancers for the video work. How did you go about that? Was it something that was difficult? What did you learn? And I’m guessing The Space hopefully supported you on this too?


Niamh White 14:13

Yeah, absolutely. So The Space kind of held our hand from the application process all the way through until evaluating and seeing what we’d actually managed to achieve. We also brought in some external expertise through our own network. So we had Marie Shula, who’s a fantastic director helping us with filming, we had John Enemie, who’s an amazing digital art director, doing the animations for us. So we did draw on external help. When it came to the rights with the artworks, we are always in conversation with our artists, about those kinds of things anyway. And because we work so closely with them, each work is commissioned specifically for that site. It’s unique, you know, it doesn’t pop up anywhere else. And actually they’ve really valued the opportunity to extend that audience as well. They’re really proud of that work. We hear all the time that, it’s one of the best projects I’ve ever done or the most challenging. So the opportunity to actually have it out in the world, as well as in that very special place, is a great one for us.


Painting by Mark Jesset
Painting by Mark Jessett – Beech Dining Room, Torbay Hospital. Photographer Dom Moore.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 15:21

That’s great. I mean, what kind of impact has this film series had? And how have you measured the success?


Niamh White 15:31

I mean, we were a little bit modest in our targets for the films because we really have never done it before. We didn’t know what we could expect. We hoped to reach 25,000 people, and we actually ended up getting something like 100,000 views in the first week. So we really were thrilled with that. I mean, the impact is twofold, isn’t it? One is obviously people just know more about us. We know that because people are getting in touch. More units across the country want to work with us, more artists want to be commissioned. But at the same time, I think it’s also that feeling that people have a better understanding of our ethos, and what’s behind the projects, and all the special people and all the kinds of different disciplines and different types of knowledge and different viewpoints have gone into those commissions. So it’s been really fantastic to be able to share that because we’re small, you know, we started as two people four years ago, we’re now a team of six. We don’t do that many projects a year. And we have huge aspirations, we want to grow, we want to do as much as we can. So for us, it was a really fundamental project and one that’s a kind of stepping stone that we can jump off and go forward into the future with.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 16:58

It’s amazing! I’m bowled over! Those figures are four times what you expected just in the first week. Yes! I love it! I mean, Fiona, as someone who commissions and gives the final green light to some of these projects, when you look at a project like Hospital Rooms, what are you looking for? In, kind of, measuring that success to say, ‘yeah, that one did what we wanted it to’?


Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space 17:28

Looking ahead of time, because we don’t have massive commissioning funds, we have a commissioning strand and there is a limit to how many projects we can support in any one year. So what’s really important for us is that each individual project speaks to an issue or a subject that we know that other artists and other organisations, if they see it as an example, will go. ‘okay great.’ So in fact, that’s what they [Hospital Rooms] did. So, as Niamh says, they’re a tiny team, that’s true of many arts organisations, and a smaller arts organisation can be very put off digital, because it feels like you’ve wandered out into a whole other set of skills and rights, as you mentioned.

It is so useful when you see a peer group organisation you respect, doing something and having some success. It’s an incredible way of giving confidence and encouragement to others in slightly different contexts to try it. I think with this particular project, it was that thing about here is a is a project that is already delivering in a perfect way to the environment that it’s focused on and to the recipients and the collaborators. What’s really, really important is to amplify what the ethos is – it’s so lovely Niamh that you actually said about amplifying ethos, because for me, that’s what online gives you the ability to do. To speak much more loudly to many more people about who you are, what you stand for. This isn’t a passive relationship online, you want those people who come to you online to be able to do something as a result of seeing what you’re about. Whether that’s to approach you to join and make a piece of art; whether that’s to approach you to ask you to come and look at the environment that they have; or it’s just generally out there – issues around mental health and awareness. It’s great.

This now means that Hospital Rooms as a project speaks about itself, but it speaks as well on behalf of that community, who otherwise perhaps, as you say, are kind of down the end of the lane in the slightly dilapidated 1950s building, conveniently out of sight to the rest of us and obviously that’s not how it should be. So I think it’s great. Cultural artists have a right to have an opinion. I mean, we’re right now, in a world in which with the Black Lives Matter movement; with decolonizing collections discussions; with #MeToo movements, it’s never been more important that artists speak to the current issues of the time and show how art can be part of a way of creating a world in which we do listen and not shout. Where we do see the benefits of shared experiences and creating artwork. You know, I think we need to value it much more greatly. And if we can spot projects like this one, then I think we do that online.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 20:38

Niamh, where do you take this next? What else is open to you? Now you’ve got this under your belt – I mean, we’ve been talking on this podcast series about A.I., next generation storytelling, there’s photo essays, there’s podcasts…is it another film series? Has this kind of sparked a bit of curiosity? We need to tell more people about this stuff because more people need to know?


Niamh White 21:10

Yes, absolutely. We are doing more films. But fundamentally, the COVID19 pandemic has basically made us pivot our service completely. And since April, we have actually gone almost entirely digital. From this kind of jumping off point we’ve really plunged in. So with lockdown, patients within the wards have really suffered. Leave has been limited, external visitors have been stopped, stays are longer. And with staff shortages, opportunities for creative and intellectual activity, are really, really limited. In addition to that, our projects that had all been scheduled were also stopped. We weren’t allowed to come in, we were kind of in a bit of a bad place six months ago.

But what we did was speak to some of the trust’s leadership teams and what we realised was, for the first time, hospitals were buying up iPads and tablets at scale to be able to facilitate family visits and therapy. So we said to them, why can’t we deliver our art workshops through the same means. And if you imagine, prior to this, lots of security regulations meant there was no devices within the units and often no internet, either. So this was a big change and a big challenge. But obviously, you know, with adversity, sometimes people change their minds very quickly, and opportunities arise. So in May we actually launched a digital art school. We commissioned the country’s best arts educators from Richard Wentworth, to Eileen Cooper, to Harold Offer, to many, many others who live-streamed their sessions from their studios directly into the mental health units. But also, we made it available to the public so that we had a parity of esteem that these were not dumbed down, they were not simplified or anything. We treated everyone with exactly the same respect and acknowledged that lots of people were struggling. So every Thursday at two o’clock we have been streaming these arts workshops to support patients, to help staff be able to deliver them more easily, and have that quality of interaction as well. So we’ve been almost entirely digital for six months, which is kind of incredible.

And it’s like Fiona was saying, it’s that reach, we’re now reaching more patients in one session than we were in a year before. So this will become part of our core service, it won’t be something we drop when lockdown finishes. We’re now recruiting for a digital content producer, so this is really part of Hospital Rooms now. This, not necessarily small, but this little venture we tried with The Space has kind of ballooned, and as well as that we’re attracting different funding. So we’ve attracted fantastic partnership with Seasalt Cornwall, who sponsored six sessions from Cornish artists to go out. We’ve had contracts with the NHS Trust to have very specific digital art schools for their particular patients. And we’ve also attracted trust and foundation money for the general digital art school that goes out to all and sundry. 2021 will have a full semesters’ programmes. We’ll be aiming for really big numbers in terms of interactions, and also, if we do have this start-stop situation where we’re in units, and then we have to stop again, this is the way that we’ll maintain relationships. This is the way we won’t lose momentum. So it’s twofold really. And we’re really proud of it. And we’re really kind of running with it now. So yeah, that had a huge, huge impact on our organisation, and hopefully the people that we work with.


Artist France-Lise McGurn in front of a painting
France-Lise McGurn, Northside House Social Hub. Photography Damian Griffiths.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 25:30

I mean, it’s inspirational. What would you say to Niamh of 18 months ago? Who was like, ‘oh, yeah, that’s that digital thing. Kind of intrigued by that, but I’m not really sure what to do.’ What would you say to her now?


Niamh White 25:47

Probably, you know, the usual – feel the fear and do it anyway [laughs].


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 25:51

The old Susan Jeffers, you can’t go wrong with a Susan Jeffers quote! But for people who are listening and thinking, ‘I just want to take a step or start,’ it sometimes can feel quite scary, quite overwhelming. There is a lot of anxiety, ‘what if’ feeling, some people haven’t felt as bold and ambitious as you to turn things around and jump in. There’s almost been, for quite a few people, a sense of the holding their breath, like, ‘I’m not quite sure what to do, I’m not quite sure where to go.’ So, what advice would you have for them?


Niamh White 26:28

I guess, at Hospital Rooms, we’ve always been quite, not happy to, but open to failing. And I think the one thing that we’ve learned is that you don’t get anywhere until you try something. And that acceptance that actually the first time, it’s not going to be perfect. We learnt that with editing; we learnt that with social media campaigns; we learnt that with all the different aspects of these digital bits. It’s the kind of figuring out, the trying bits, and the testing and the trialling. Unfortunately, I can’t see any other way of doing it, you just try and be open to getting it bit wrong, but then change it a bit and then try something else. That’s not very, kind of, well of wisdom…


Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space 27:14

It is. No, it is.


Niamh White 27:14

But you know, it’s the reality for us. And I really do think that you get a lot back. I re-watched the films for this and it is amazing to hear those stories. And it’s easy to take that for granted. And actually, probably when you’re in it in your own organisation, your day-to-day, you’re going for it – it’s possible to miss some of these things and not realise no one else really knows about it. You have to shout about it, you have to find a way of actually telling people, this is what you’re doing. And obviously, it’s a creative medium too, so there’s that element that if you’re already in that realm, if you’re already working in arts and culture, you have so many of the skills that you need anyway. And you’re likely to enjoy it because you’re putting together, you’re building something, you’re making something. It’s visual, it sounds, it’s storytelling, it’s all the things that we love. I guess that would just be my thought, to just try. And each time, each iteration is better. It’s the same thing that we’re doing with the art school, every series we’ve done, we’ve looked at our analytics, all of those things. And each time we get a bit better. That’s it really.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 28:38

Brilliant! You know what? Just get started. My ethos is always just get started, perfect it later. I sometimes feel guilty that I don’t listen to my own advice. But I think, what an exciting project! And Fiona could we have a better case study of the impact that digital could have in a global crisis, on a relatively small hands-on art company?


Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space 29:04

No. Absolutely brilliant, absolutely brilliant! And I’m so delighted that it’s gone on and grown in such a significant way. And that is the benefit. There are many things you learn through the things that you would do differently next time. But nevertheless, the point is, this is a changing landscape. User behaviours, the people going online to look for this kind of content, that’s changed hugely in these nine months. So this is a conversation. You don’t have to get it all right first time, but you have to say, ‘I’m ready. I’m here and I’m ready to start having this conversation in this way, with the world that’s looking online.’ So for me, it’s brilliant. And I think you guys have just seized it with both hands and it’s fantastic to hear.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 29:51

Brilliant. Niamh, thank you so much for your time. We will share links on our episode description if you want to go and have a look at some of the artwork, if you want to go and watch some of the films. I highly recommend it. Thanks so much Niamh.


Niamh White 30:08

Thank you so much for having me.


Clare Freeman, podcast producer 30:10

And if you’d like to find more resources about what kind of support The Space can offer, perhaps the latest commissioning rounds that are out, or any kind of skills, we will share a link to the digital rights toolkit. That’s a pretty handy one, which is really helpful, giving you an idea of things to think about, whether it be a film series that you want to create, whether it be music, performance, something interactive. All those things that you might not know now, but you will, and hopefully be embracing just as Niamh and Hospital Rooms have. The website is www.thespace.org and we’ll be back with another episode where we’re talking to a musician and more inspirational case studies of proving what is possible in the arts and culture sector, even when there’s a global crisis. Who would have thought it? Thanks for listening.


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