Neesha Gobin & Catsou Roberts – The curators injecting life, colour and meaning into sterile wards

Neesha Gobin & Catsou Roberts – The curators injecting life, colour and meaning into sterile wards


This week’s #HealthcareHeroes are Neesha Gobin & Catsou Roberts. They are the inspired people behind Vital Arts. An organisation that is transforming our hospitals by delivering arts projects for the well-being of patients, staff and the wider hospital community. The team work in partnership with medical staff, artists and cultural organisations to devise and deliver therapeutic creative programmes – workshops, artist-in-residencies, exhibitions, installations and public art commissions – that support medical goals; enhance patient well-being; provide continual professional development opportunities for staff; and create stimulating and uplifting spaces for patients, staff and the wider hospital community.

A sterile labyrinth of corridors and clinical rooms void of personality make hospitals scary places to visit for the majority of people. Vital Arts are looking to change that experience by transforming spaces, engage patients and make hospitals a better environment for all.

Vital Arts deliver arts projects for the well-being of patients, families and staff. We meet Catsou Roberts, Director and Neesha Gobin, Arts Manager in a hospital that has three towers, the highest of which has 14 floors, with 675 beds, 110 wards and 26 operating theatres. This is a lot of space to fill with work by professional artists, and it is just one of the five hospitals that Vital Arts deal with.

Walking through the revolving doors at the entrance we are hit with a flood of colour in geometric shapes reaching up the walls on tiles designed by renowned artist Morag Myerscough. The space immediately feels brighter, more welcoming and a whole lot more interesting than any hospital we’ve ever been in. Neesha greets us at the entrance and explains, “Because this is the Women and Children’s entrance we wanted to create a space that is bright and welcoming and Morag’s work does just that.” Vital Arts, established 20 years ago, is charitably funded and raises money for all its projects. They set out to commission site-specific, permanent artwork that has a real engagement with the architectural space, creating something unique for each designated area.

We meet Catsou, who is waiting for us in the Children’s Imaging Department eager to show us the latest installation by Tatty Devine. “Tatty Devine make jewellery that blurs the boundaries between art and fashion so commissioning them to make their first work for an architectural context was exciting.” The installation includes thousands of individual acrylic pieces carefully arranged to create kaleidoscopic compositions that catch the light like only jewellery can. The installation includes thousands of individual acrylic pieces carefully arranged to create kaleidoscopic compositions that catch the light like only jewellery can. The numerous artworks commissioned by Vital Arts can be seen in the corridors, reception areas and importantly the treatment rooms breathing colour and life into an area that could otherwise be intimidating for children. Neesha says, “As soon as we put up the artwork, the staff were delighted and told me it was lovely to see how the space was transformed. They responded to the vibrancy of it, as did the patients and their families who enjoy its playfulness.”

Vital Arts are the link between the artist and everyone in the hospital. They work closely with clinicians, staff and patients to ensure the best outcomes. Catsou said, “It’s their space and they need to feel an affinity with the art, just as we aim to reach patients using the services who might not otherwise have access to contemporary art.”

The selected artists come and spend time in the hospitals giving them a greater understanding of how the patients and staff use the space. For example, Jacques Nimki, an artist commissioned by Vital Arts, went to the children’s A&E several times in the middle of the night to understand the energy of the environment before beginning his work. Neesha said, “We are always thinking about the demographics of who will be viewing the artwork, how and when they will be seeing it. We consider whether they will be walking through a corridor, sitting in a waiting room, lying down and looking at the ceiling, and so provide artwork to be seen in various ways.” We catch a lift up to another children’s area, where the space is vibrant, playful and brilliantly tailored for the audience. In the radiography rooms there is art set into the ceiling so patients receiving treatment have something to focus on when they have to lie still. On this site alone Vital Arts have nearly every floor covered, which is astonishing. One of the great things about the artwork is that you forget you’re in a hospital; the cold, sterile, empty corridors and rooms you associate with them are gone. Catsou explained, “Unlike museums that have opening times, this building is never emptied of possible viewers. The art is beaming from the hospital walls 24/7. I love the fact that at any time of the day someone is likely to be looking at a great work of art, and quite possibly, enjoying an eye-catching and mind-opening experience.”

As well as the art installations they also run a Patient Participation Programme which provides year-round opportunities for patients to engage with music, dance, poetry, and other arts. One particular programme with the London Symphony Orchestra enabled singers and musicians to perform to patients. In the neonatal ward for example, the musicians would sing lullabies to babies in incubators. Neesha said, “The nurses noticed the babies’ heart rates dropping, their oxygen rates rising and the parents feeling more relaxed. For just a moment or two, a little calm is brought into their lives, and it makes a noticeable difference.” This participation programme is partly funded by the sale of limited edition works which Vital Arts produces with some of the artists—often as a result of an artist-in-residency—allowing the team to continue delivering new ways of patient interaction. Another successful project involved Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Contemporary Dance, who encourage movement in patients. Neesha said, “One visiting daughter had not seen her mother engage in any form of activity since her admission into hospital. Yet on this occasion, her mother was singing and clapping along to the music played by the dance artists and both mother and daughter were visibly uplifted.”

Catsou added, “Our priority is to assist clinical aims and enhance the hospital environment, and this is an effective way to do that—as attested by our physio colleagues, and supported in many recent studies on arts in healthcare.” It’s clear to see the team are passionate about what they do. Catsou says, “I want to raise the standard of what art can be in hospitals.” They also want to act as a beacon encouraging other hospitals to be courageous, ambitious and discover new artists—not to just reach for off-the-shelf solutions by recycling artists who have already made work in hospitals. They are focused on delivering innovative projects, constantly pushing themselves and the artists to create work that is fresh, interesting and meaningful.

There are hospitals around the world with empty walls, harshly lit clinical wards and intimidating operating theatres. They are places of work for professionals worldwide and are visited by millions of patients each year. What Vital Arts have done is special, it’s visionary, it opens artwork to a new audience that cleverly responds to the space it occupies and improves the patient experience within. Vital Arts have shown how some imagination can transform hospitals, making them less frightening and more uplifting. The team aren’t motivated by money, rather, they are interested in how they can offer life-changing encounters with significant contemporary art. What they do is create unique spaces which have a positive impact on everyone who spends time there.

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