“I’m proud of myself and proud of the project.” In early 2013 Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust received a generous grant from the Friends of Brighton and Hove Hospitals to run an art project at Mill View Hospital. The aim was to improve the aesthetic quality of the built environment making the hospital a more visually interesting and hopeful place.
From the outset the project was developed in partnership with the Royal Pavilion and Museums. It reflects Sussex Partnership’s commitment to collaborative and participatory arts projects involving health and cultural partnerships with service users at their heart. The project has been participatory throughout with service user involvement in the selection interviews for the commissioned artist, in the creation of works of art and in the curatorial process. All participants had direct experience of acute mental health care and because of this we wanted to ensure the group felt supportive and safe as well as exploratory. Throughout the project staff worked closely to attend to practical, aesthetic and emotional issues. This helped achieve remarkably high attendance at each of the six weekly sessions and a strong level of engagement.
Before the project started the group made up of mental health service users, carers and staff met on the hospital site to view the exhibition space, meet each other and begin to look at images from the Royal Pavilion and Museums collection. During that very first meeting we looked at a historic photograph of Brighton Pavilion being used as a hospital during the First World War, whilst doing so there was a moment of realisation that almost one hundred years later we were involved in reversing this process and bringing the museum into a hospital. Any initial ideas of using reproductions from the museum collection for display within the hospital quickly gave way to a much more engaged process. The commissioning of a lead artist, Annis Joslin, ensured the project was guided by a strong aesthetic vision and highly developed visual arts skills. We choose an artist with an established background in participatory arts practice. The collaboration with the Royal Pavilion and Museums went far beyond using beyond physical space to run art making sessions. Our partnership included access to the Museum collection, a teaching session with gallery curator Jenny Lund which involved visits to and discussion of two current exhibitions. Alongside making work, participants also became more skilled and confident selecting and viewing images, collating works and finally testing out curatorial choices using a model of the proposed gallery space at Mill View Hospital.
Thus whilst the project had a specific outcome, the creation of a permanent exhibition, an exploratory group process also informed the final exhibition. The starting point was a working title ‘Upside Down and Inside Out’ and the watercolour painting “Brighthelmston, Sussex” (1824) by J M W Turner recently acquired by the Museum. Not only did the J M W Turner painting inspire the exhibition e.g a trip to the beach to try and identify his view point, but it also encouraged the group to create their own images of the city. Contemporary photographs taken by participants, historic photographs of Brighton and Hove from within the museums collection and local maps became the basis of new works. In this way the historic collection was re-imagined and re-worked by each group member. Disparate images were glued together, fragments were cut or torn out and explorations into what could work together were made. At the outset we wanted an exhibition that people could engage with and would want to talk about. As the project progressed participants also wanted service users, visitors and staff to Mill View to both recognise and be curious about the images and for them to see a true portrait of the city in as inclusive, engaging and aesthetic form as possible. Participants feedback has been very positive. The following reflections are from group members: “I’ve learnt how to use photographed images and collage these to transform into new images, especially thinking about their stories. I have enjoyed the quickness of making the pictures and the experience of working in a supportive group.” “I have enjoyed the whole project and its been educational as well as artistically beneficial to me.” “I have enjoyed spending time with such creative, interesting people. We are all very individual, yet on this project we all complemented each other and worked as a really strong team.” “Absolutely brilliant, inspiring and inclusive” “Thank you for making this project so interesting and enjoyable. The work was a labour of love and it was great to be part of it.” “A big THANK YOU for making my Friday afternoon’s an arty pleasure!” The exhibition opens on 10 October 2013. Visitors are welcome by appointment.