This will be my last blog post as arts coordinator for the Institute. It is a time for reflection and anticipation as I prepare to leave the IMH, say my farewells, and prepare for my new position at University of the Arts-London College of Fashion.
I thought I’d take the opportunity to share a few highlights.
1- ‘My big baby’
The huge sculpture ‘house for a Gordian knot’ that sits outside the the IMH headquarters is perhaps my biggest (and heaviest) legacy. I have joked about ‘taking it with me’ but the fact is, the 6 tonne giant is going nowhere and I relish the fact that it will still be standing proud, as a beacon of hope and positivity about mental health for many hundreds of years to come. I wonder what the now ultra-modern jubilee campus will look like then?
The project itself was akin to a roller-coaster ride which included floods, tantrums and budgetary constraints (I mention no names here for fear of reprisals!). The 18 month saga however was well worth it when I see the magnificent result glowing proudly in front of the IMH. The sculpture has attracted nicknames like ‘the grub’ and ‘the meteor’ and visitors regularly stop to look and pose for photos. It is a tangible reminder of the power of art to stimulate emotion and debate as well as to enhance the environment. Working with the talented sculptor Ekkehard Altenburger was a real joy due to his vision, tenacity and professionalism. Particular thanks also go to Nick Manning, Gerry Carton, Saul Tendler, Maxine Clift, Mike Cooke, and Richard Wigginton for their support throughout the project. It was very much a team effort.
I will miss seeing my ‘big baby’ each day on my way into work; it never fails to lift my mood and reminds me of the importance of art in my life. Access to art and creative activities is essential to my health and wellbeing. I hope that I have used my role as arts coordinator to facilitate those opportunities for others.
2- ‘Art in the Asylum’
The exhibition ‘art in the asylum’ at the Djanogly Gallery (6 Sept-3 Nov 2013) was very much a labour of love. The project took some 4.5 years from the original idea to the opening of the exhibition. Many times I almost gave up as various setbacks stalled and threatened the project. For those who didn’t see it, the exhibition charted the diagnostic and therapeutic use of art in British asylums from 1832 to 1970. It also addressed the critical role that asylum art played in art history with the creation of art brut and later outsider art, which is now a highly marketable commodity with commercial fairs annually in Paris and NYC. All the effort paid off as around 10,000 people attended the exhibition and its associated events and reviews were glowing. Many people gave remarkable feedback about the impact and significance of the exhibition e.g. ‘superb and thought-provoking’, ‘mentally incredible’, ‘staggering art’, ‘very moved by amazing artwork’, ‘provocative and thoughtful’. Visitors travelled from far and wide, even braving the tram works (!) to get there. The earliest work from the 1800s from Crichton Royal Institution in Dumfries attracted much attention and a number of visitors travelled all the way from Scotland to see it. It had never been exhibited before outside Scotland and it demonstrated the historical importance of Scottish mental health care so it was a real coup to have it.
I am pleased to report that, due to popular demand, I am currently preparing a text about the exhibition which should be ready later this year or early 2015. It is not an exaggeration to state that the exhibition was transformative for me as it developed my creative and curatorial skills and moved me into an artistic realm where I feel very much at home. An especially huge thanks goes to my co-curator Esra Plumer and to Neil Walker at the Djanogly Gallery for their creativity and commitment in realising ‘art in the asylum’ and to the lenders of the some 130 works included, without which there would have been no exhibition.
3- the IMH exhibitions
What began on a very small scale to raise awareness of mental health issues and to encourage service users to submit artwork for exhibition in the building, have now become nationally recognised exhibitions with a large number of submissions coming from all over the UK. It was my mission to fill the IMH with art and I must say I have almost succeeded. Highlights include the ‘pugs in space’ launch at the 2012 foundation lunch complete with performance art ‘human canapé’ and 4 pug dogs running loose amongst the suited delegates. Another unforgettable moment was when a service user cried tears of joy as she embraced me and expressed gratitude for giving her the opportunity to show her art in the IMH. I am especially proud of the work I have done at Rampton Hospital, working with a particularly vulnerable population; running art workshops, facilitating submission of work for exhibition, and attending patient events to give feedback on their artwork and to give out awards for artistic achievement. It is clear that for this group of people who have limited access to creative opportunities and community engagement, art can be a powerful route to recovery. As one said to me, ‘I am an artist now, not a patient’. Many thanks to Giovanni Grassi at the Acorns unit for his tireless work in assisting me with activities at Rampton and to Mike Harris for his support.
I feel like I could go on and on but I won’t. As this brief missive hopefully conveys, I have really enjoyed my role as arts coordinator. It had been personally and professionally enriching and I hope that I have left a healthy legacy for the new IMH arts team of Gary Winship and Elvira Perez to move forward. I know that the future of arts activities at IMH is in good hands with them.
It is satisfying that art is now embedded in the culture of the IMH. My work hasn’t been without its detractors and it can be hard to justify expenditure on art in the age of austerity. I would argue that it is a small price to pay for the enrichment that art provides with its power to stimulate, decorate and in some cases agitate. Long may it continue.