Paintings in Hospitals – using art to inspire better health and wellbeing

The guest blog this week comes from Amisha Karia, Head of Collections & Programming at Paintings in Hospitals. Amisha describes the background to the inspiring Paintings in Hospitals collection and the practicalities and challenges of working with a collection that is frequently on display in environments often quite different to that of a museum or gallery. The amazing response from those who connect to the artworks demonstrates the positive social impact the collection has.

Patient and healthcare professional in a hospital ward with two paintings on the wall in the background
‘Jewels in Bird’ and ‘Plane in a Fish’ by Matha Theos at Breast Care Unit, Queen Alexandra Hospital. © courtesy of the artist, Paintings in Hospitals

Caring for a collection founded on lending its art to health care sites, it is difficult for me now to understand why you wouldn’t lend your collection to other organisations. However, this mindset has not always been the case for me. When I first started at Paintings in Hospitals, I was surprised by how much we handled, moved and transported our artworks. However, soon after, I had a eureka moment that for me was immensely profound. The Paintings in Hospitals collection is a ‘useful’ collection: to travel out into the wider world is its true purpose. Caring for a collection like this is all about mindset.

The ethos of Paintings in Hospitals is to use art to inspire better health and wellbeing. Our collection is one of the oldest dedicated to providing comfort and relief, helping users to interact and better cope with their environment. We hold over 4,000 artworks: paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, animations and photography from artists of international importance including: Andy Warhol, Bridget Riley, Antony Gormley, Patrick Caulfield, Sonia Boyce and Ian Davenport. The collection is best known through our loans programme and it is through this programme that 70% of the collection is on public display.

We present the modern and contemporary art from our collection in care environments using a co-curated engagement model – working with the person receiving or delivering care at the centre of curatorial decision-making. I believe that this way of working, using activities and workshops to collaborate with patients and carers, encourages a more meaningful relationship with the artworks. We know that when carefully selected and displayed, artworks from our collection have the power to transform intimidating clinical environments into engaging, reassuring and compassionate care spaces. This reflects the charity’s determination to not only provide artworks from our collection to improve the aesthetics and approachbility of health and social care settings but also to create care spaces that inspire, enrich, inform, and enhance the life of patients, service-users, staff and visitors.

A tour group looking at paintings on a wall at a hospital
A free tour of the artworks on display at University College Hospitals, London. © courtesy of the artist, Paintings in Hospitals

We currently have 261 loans or displays in health and social care environments in 177 sites across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Every year, just at the hospitals in which we work, our artwork and activities are experienced by over two million people. Paintings in Hospitals occupies a unique place in the development of arts and health in this country as one of the longest established organisations in the field and being the only loan collection of its kind specifically for use by care sites.

Two people in a health centre waiting area with two paintings on the wall behind them
‘Red Horizon’ and ‘Set Pattern 1’ by Biddy Bunzl at Bedminster Family Practice. © courtesy of the artist, Paintings in Hospitals

Paintings in Hospitals was founded in 1959 by a single person called Sheridan Russell. His involvement in the health service began in 1949 as the country’s first male Almoner (an Almoner was a sort of social worker) at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, London.

Sheridan suggested that the basic qualities needed for the making of an almoner were: kindness, sympathy, understanding and patience. He thought that hospitals ought to be places where people developed, where people not only recovered from what they had had, but came out richer, better people. Idealistic perhaps, but it was a philosophy that was in many ways the cornerstone of the concept behind Paintings in Hospitals. And indeed the wider museum sector.

I am constantly amazed by Sheridan – a man who saw beyond the restrictions. His vision was simply to allow people to access art in environments where you wouldn’t normally see it. I fully believe in his vision – art inspires, uplifts and empowers people. I am super proud that I work for a charity that makes this happen. Of course, with this, comes the challenges of lending our collection to care sites. It is my role to overcome these challenges and find solutions so we can continue to support people in those environments, whilst carefully balancing my responsibilities of being a Curator.


I, as well as the team at Paintings in Hospitals, work hard to meet expected museum standards. Our approach to loans is refined and smooth after almost 60 years. However, there are regular challenges we encounter.

Transport – ‘I want to do it myself’

Working with partners outside the museum sector throws up questions. Recently, I had a health centre who couldn’t understand why we used an experienced art transport company when they could simply ‘walk the pictures’ back to us once their loan had come to an end. Unfortunately, this is something I have come to across relatively often especially when there has been a change in personnel. My advice would be to tackle the question head on. While it seems obvious to us that our collection is precious it may not be to a partner especially as their every day may literally be about life or death. I responded to this by highlighting that we are keen to support our health partners wherever possible and that to keep in-line with museum standards and to not invalidate our insurance, our artworks can only be transported by qualified art handlers. The response I received from the partner was positive – they went on to say that ‘we are sad to see them (the artworks from our collection) go, but hope to meet them again in the future’.

Completion of audits

Our health and social care partners have a duty of care for artworks they borrow from our collection. To check that our artworks are well looked after, we carry out annual audits of artworks on loan. The audit includes condition checking the artwork. This year we will be auditing 90% of active loans. Our experience shows that carrying out audits significantly reduces the risk of loss and theft and therefore prevents health and social care sites from incurring costs, as well as demonstrating our commitment to managing the collection. The annual audits also represents a great opportunity to nurture relationships with our partners. We aim to have a high return rate for the audits (95%!) which is challenging. However, we overcome this by creating simple forms with clear instructions and offering help by phone or in person if partners are having difficulty in completing it.

Transparency and taking responsibility   

From our experience, developing a partnership which leads to a loan needs to be completely transparent. We find it useful to send a copy of our Loan Agreement to our partners before the loan is finalised so that they have a chance to look at the terms and conditions. It might sound quite basic, but it can really highlight issues so any challenges/barriers can be dealt with at an early stage. We also ask for three levels of signature at an early stage. Again from our experience, it helps the partner to understand the responsibility they are taking on. We ask for the details of three contacts who will sign the contract, for us this is usually: a management contact (the Facilities Manager, Practice Manager or similar who has authorised the loan); the loan organiser (the person who has arranged the loan on behalf of our partner – a primary contact and the person to whom the agreement will be addressed to), and a site/department contact (a permanent member of staff based at the display location, who will be responsible for maintaining an up-to-date record of the location of the artwork). We also keep things simple by starting all our loans on the first of the month and allow a month for the agreement to be signed.

Success Stories
Close-up of a handwritten comment on a sticky note placed next to a painting on a wall in an exhibition
Comment card at Paintings in Hospitals: Showcase exhibition at the Menier Gallery. © Paintings in Hospitals

When a loan is successful and does what Sheridan intended for it to do, I cannot tell you the feeling it evokes for me! We know there is now overwhelming evidence demonstrating the profoundly positive contribution of art and environment to the emotional and physical wellbeing of patients, carers and the public, but when you hear first-hand from someone what a difference the collection you look after does for them, it is amazing. Here are some recent quotes from some of the people we support:

One patient at Great Western Hospital took a moment of respite from her condition. She said:

“It is wonderful to pause and look at the artwork. It stops me being completely absorbed into a world of health and worry.”

A transplant patient at Taunton & Somerset Hospital told us how our artworks transformed his perspective:

“I am allowed to walk along the passage on this floor only and these paintings are the focus of my attention each time… Thank you for giving me greater interest and hope for the future.”

A healthcare professional carrying a child and looking at a Quentin Blake artwork on the wall in a hospital
‘Life Under Water 4’, ‘…5’ and ‘…6’ by Quentin Blake at Peterborough City Hospital. © courtesy of the artist, Paintings in Hospitals

A staff nurse working with elderly patients noted the impact of our works on patient communication. She remarked:

“The paintings are a talking point for us; they lift and soften the atmosphere; they jog the memory and facilitate discussion, which often leads to more difficult topics being brought up.”

Demonstrating the impact of our work on the wider community, a police officer in South Wales reached out to tell us that:

“A picture in A&E takes me to a different place. I thought you should know that your work not only helps the ill get better, it helps the well stay well”

So in conclusion, Sheridan really knew what he was talking about and I have to agree with him. Whilst he may have been referring to Almoners, I suggest that the basic qualities needed for a collections professional who is keen to make loans happen are kindness, sympathy, understanding and patience.


Please contact Amisha Karia for more information about Paintings in Hospitals by emailing or calling 0207 407 3222. You can also follow the collection on Facebook  and on Twitter @artinhospitals

You can also donate to Paintings in Hospitals to support their work through their JustGiving page.