Three ways art could change Britain

Published 20 April 2015

Visual art can shape approaches across public policy. Here are three unlikely areas where art and artists can make a difference.

  • From the Spring 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.


    Bringing art to Britain’s prisons can help change attitudes, both inside and outside these institutions

    British prisons are at breaking point, with almost 100,000 prisoners in the UK compared to 68,000 in France, which has a larger population. In addition, over half those serving sentences of less than 12 months are reconvicted within a year, according to Ministry of Justice figures from 2013. Yet the shrill political debate around crime remains as dominated as ever by notions of toughness and hard-line approaches. As Stephen Chambers RA says, “There are certainly no votes in prison reform.”

    Chambers is a trustee of the Koestler Trust, the charity which, through exhibitions and an awards programme, encourages offenders to create art as a way of making positive changes in their lives. Former RA president Sir Hugh Casson was a key figure in establishing the Trust in 1962. “No other country in the world has an arts award scheme open to all its prisoners, or a programme of exhibitions to get that work shown to the public,” says Tim Robertson, the Trust’s outgoing chief executive. “And Casson’s great achievement was to engage the top level of arts people.” His legacy is clear in that leading artists such as Sarah Lucas and Grayson Perry RA are still getting involved in Koestler projects.

    The arts can make a tremendous difference to offenders, Robertson explains, in terms of literacy and numeracy but also what he calls emotional literacy. “To create artistically, you have to get some perspective on your own emotional situation and connections and relationships – and, perhaps almost more importantly than that, to communicate it to other people.” Art also offers “a sense of hope and possibility”, he adds.

    Offering prisoners a different outlook is vital. “I can’t recall who said it,” says Chambers, “but it’s a line I’ve borrowed over the years with regard to prisons: ‘Making art is the only way you can run away from home without leaving the room.’”

    But giving prisoners hope is only part of the battle. “The closest thing to a political dimension for us, though it’s not explicitly political, is that we know that for offenders to rehabilitate, it’s not just the offenders that need to change, but also society’s attitudes towards them,” Robertson says. The Trust’s statistics are impressive: more than 8,000 prisoners enter the Koestler Awards, from over 300 different institutions, and 20,000 people visit the exhibitions, held at the Southbank Centre in London and around the UK every year. In a 2013 survey taken in Cardiff, 55 per cent of people interviewed said that the exhibition had given them a more positive attitude towards offenders. As Robertson says, “You can’t come through a Koestler exhibition of art by offenders and not a) realise that offenders are human beings and b) think, ‘Wow, some of these people have got skill and talent.’”

  • Miguel Montaner, Art and Prisons

    Miguel Montaner, Art and Prisons, 2015.


  • Infrastructure

    Making art an integral part of Britain’s major public buildings would boost the country’s economic and cultural assets

    Among the biggest government investments announced in this parliament was the £42bn HS2 project, a high-speed rail link between London, the Midlands and England’s North-West. But will such an initiative place great art and great architecture at its heart?

    Britain lags behind other countries in public art commissioning. It has never had a ‘Percent for Art’ policy, where a proportion of the budget for every major building project, usually 1 per cent, is allocated to public art commissions, whether permanent or temporary. “Europe is much better at doing this than we are,” says Vivien Lovell, Director of art consultants Modus Operandi. ‘Per cent for Art’ is policy at a national level in France and across Scandinavia, and at federal level in Germany. Critics suggest that it simply leads to poor public art, but Lovell disagrees. “If you have a per cent law, and very good curators, then it can lead to fantastic results.”

    One of the major infrastructure projects in the UK that involved extensive arts commissioning was the London 2012 Olympics. Owen Hopkins, Architecture Programme Manager at the Royal Academy, notes ironically: “It was a huge infrastructure and regeneration project which staged two, two-week festivals of sport as an excuse to spend over £9bn on new facilities, new transport links and art.” Both on a cultural and infrastructural level, it was perceived as a success.

    Increasingly, however, the arts are having to justify themselves in ways that have nothing to do with aesthetics. As Hopkins puts it: “If you’re working in an environment where every cost has to be justified, how do you begin to measure the economic value of culture?” In a recent panel discussion at the RA, Jolyon Brewis, Chief Executive at Grimshaw Architects, said that Slipstream, Richard Wilson RA’s huge sculpture unveiled in 2014 for Heathrow’s new Terminal 2 building, had generated more than £26.5m worth of free publicity for the terminal (based on a multiple of the equivalent advertising costs), while the artwork had only cost £2.5m. “In those terms it not only had cultural value but it had a clear economic value as well,” Hopkins says. “Architects are much more willing to work with artists now than was the case 10 or 20 years ago,” Lovell says. “They see it as being an interesting collaborative aspect of their work.” The stage is set for a golden age of collaboration between the two disciplines. Will politicians have the vision to nurture it?

  • Miguel Montaner, Art and Infrastructure

    Miguel Montaner, Art and Infrastructure, 2015.


  • Health

    Art is not only good for wellbeing, but can reduce hospital stays for patients – and save money for the NHS

    Although the main political parties are now locked in debate about the state of the NHS, both the previous Labour government and the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition agreed on one health-related issue. “Both governments have understood mental health and people’s wellbeing as being integral to their physical health,” says Ben Pearce, Director of Paintings in Hospitals, which loans artworks to healthcare institutions across the country. He believes the presence of art can have a huge impact, both “in terms of recovery and as preventative measures.”

    Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London has a far-reaching programme run by its charity CW+ that seeks to improve the care conditions for patients – and art and design are crucial elements. Its arts director Trystan Hawkins says there is “tangible evidence now on the value of art in terms of enhancing clinical outcomes but also in saving the NHS money.”

    More than ten years ago, the Staricoff Report found that between 1998 and 2002 there was a 32 per cent decrease of stress hormones in patients who came into contact with music or art within the hospital, and they also needed less morphine. But there was an even more compelling statistic. “Patients undergoing surgery who were exposed to music or art were in hospital for a day less than patients who weren’t,” Hawkins says. So savings made through CW+’s work quickly begin to add up to significant sums.

    CW+ has an art collection that ranges from a Veronese to a giant sculpture by Academician Allen Jones, and it continues to commission new work. Artist and musician Brian Eno is working on creating environments to enhance the wellbeing of surgery patients, and digital artist Matt Pyke has created interactive iPad art for use in the paediatric treatment room. “To get a cannula (intravenus tube) into a child can take up to 40 minutes, as you need to find a vein and keep them still,” Hawkins says. But in trials in which they were given Pyke’s iPad work, that time was reduced to seven minutes.

    Government interest in an art and health parliamentary group has not yet led to substantial grants for charities like CW+ and Paintings in Hospitals to develop their approaches further. In the face of compelling evidence of the transformative effect of art in healthcare settings, and the economic benefits that result, we should be asking why not.

  • Miguel Montaner, Art and Health

    Miguel Montaner, Art and Health, 2015.


  • Friends of the RA can tour Chelsea and Westminster Hospital’s art collection on 7 and 21 May.

    Ben Luke is Contemporary Art Critic at the London Evening Standard and Features Editor of The Art Newspaper.

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