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Grampian Hospitals Art Trust on COVID

Sally Thomson, Director of Grampian Hospitals Art Trust, gives us her thoughts and memories from COVID in Arts and Health.

Feelgood Friday image from Grampian Hospital Arts Trust

What will we remember and what will we forget?

When we all return to a form of normality will we remember the camaraderie of trying to make isolated connection systems work – ‘you are still muted’ is a new phrase I will not forget.

When setting out to write this conversation piece, I had every intention to concentrate on the practical issues and considerations of addressing working within arts in hospital spaces during the lockdown.

However, I think it’s an opportunity to reflect on this time of remote access when trying to deliver an arts in health programme in buildings with no access.

Some of these memories and the need for workarounds will fade into suggestions in times past as we gear back to the new norm and take on the challenges post-COVID and I feel there is value in recording key highlights before they disappear in a scramble to deliver our paused activity and fulfil our promises to our funders.

There have been tangible positives such as the increased levels of connection, but the experience of live culture can never be replaced.

I have been on many, many webinars, delivered from across the UK discussing the challenges, issues and the fundamental role of art in wellbeing.

What a joy, I can now connect with my whole sector. Only last year I struggled to participate in meetings in Glasgow and Edinburgh because the Skype calls went pear-shaped or the venue wasn’t geared up for virtual connections.

Overnight, ‘Zoom’ and ‘Teams’ have become household names. Now I can have clear and meaningful engagements with people in Germany and even Somerset, let alone our neighbours in Scotland.

Through the loss of physical connections, we have gathered a better understanding of IT remote systems which will make it easier in the future to develop programmes in our community hospitals and form new digital engagements with artists working far away from Aberdeen.

Suddenly, the north east of Scotland does not seem so far from the central belt but, please still come and visit in person when it is possible.

Lack of physical contact, no access to the sound, the nuance, and the atmosphere of culture is a feeling that is etched in my mind and I hope to never forget that sense of loss. The face to face experience of live culture simply cannot be exchanged with a screen.

A person sits in front of a colourful painting of a seascape that they are working onArtroom on the Neurology Ward Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, Artists Amy Benzie and Yvette Bathgate

An increased understanding of the virtual and online world.

When COVID-19 hit the UK, Grampian Hospitals Art Trust (GHAT) left the hospital sites to work remotely with an enthusiastic understanding that there will be a way to keep this going.

After all, we have the skills and the know-how. In line with most arts organisations, we began to plan how we would re-imagine our programme online and through our well-developed partnerships within the hospitals for a couple of weeks and then get back to normal once the pandemic receded.

This confidence moved into frustration and then disappointment from the dawning realisation that we were going to struggle to continue our connections with our service users and audiences.

I will remember the sense of helplessness as we looked for ways to facilitate meaningful creative wellbeing activity at the bedside. Healthcare facilities have had to put in place impenetrable lockdown rules in order to protect vulnerable people requiring access to non-COVID focused healthcare so remoteness has a further layer of challenge in our context.

Again this can be seen as negative and soul destroying, but if you look at the learning instead then these barriers can be galvanised into positive action.

A person in a striped tshirt and glasses stands in front of a painting as though they are giving a talkLocal Writer Shane Strachen's writing session with the GHAT collection as part of Shared Collective Heritage project 

The clamour for virtual interactions across the nation and across the world has helped to highlight what can be delivered remotely. Each NHS trust in Scotland has set up psychological and wellbeing hubs to support the NHS staff. This was a natural place for the arts programmes based in hospitals to temporarily repurpose their activities.

As online content proliferated, we used our expertise to ‘curate’ an online portal, ‘Feelgood Friday’, for those dealing with the pandemic at the coalface. Our online content was aimed at NHS staff looking for downtime between shifts or a bit of fun on a break. The content had to be accessed on NHS devices (the firewall is 20 feet thick for obvious reasons) and be easily accessible to a largely non-arts audience.

The content champions some of GHAT’s output over the past few years, in particular highlighting the participation and contribution of NHS staff, for example’ Resonate:Disseminate, facilitated by Mike Inglis and Graeme Roger, as well as the work of our partners and collaborators across the region. Interpretation has been carefully thought through using our experience within the GHAT exhibition programme.

This online portal has continued for 12 weeks and can be found on the Grampian Hospitals Art Trust website.

New found relationships and a feeling of discovery.

Arts in health organisations in hospital accommodation work in a system of carefully nurtured NHS connections, hence as NHS staff were re-deployed to support the pandemic plan we realised there were breakages developing along our communication conduits. These vital connections with our host partner and other third sector organisations, support our knowledge base and support the patients and their carers to engage with our programmes of arts activity.

This relationship building is the fundamental part of our working methodology and can easily be recognised in the working processes of all participatory and socially engaged arts practice. However, as weeks turned to months we worried about the radio silence from some of our project partners.

Some units were closed down to protect the vulnerable users, some were shielding at home and others simply working remotely. Then we began to recognise new relationships developing as we supported a new cohort of the NHS staff who in some cases were not fully aware of our work making it delightful to foster new linkages with NHS colleagues.

These have blossomed, often created by the need to build innovative workarounds. Our Rainbow Project – a gift to the NHS - supported one of our key partners, NHS Grampian Endowments, to get messages out to the NHS staff across the region through their Comfort Box programme, a very simple activity which connected community and NHS in the region.

A woman pushes a yellow box on wheels down a colourful hallway - she is smiling at the cameraThe Creative Mobile Unit on route to Royal Aberdeen Children's Hospital

Looking ahead at our next challenge.

As an arts in health organisation, our next challenge is recovery and reset. Hospitals were amongst the first spaces to socially distance and it is likely that they will be the last to go back to anything resembling normal as we protect those most at risk from this virus.

The prognosis of the hospitals’ working environment being similar to pre-COVID lockdown is anything from four to 18 months. We are now entering the next phase which strangely has an element of loss. We have had a sense of purpose to support our colleagues through an unimaginable time, but now what? We have got used to a new rhythm of life – a slower pace and a different pattern.

We have been on a collective journey together and now we are setting out a new plan and path.

Everyone is at risk of contracting the virus, but as people in hospital are already vulnerable any arts programme to support creativity using face to face facilitation and dialogue will need to be very carefully designed using innovation and creative thinking.

We may need to create new partnerships with our traditional funders to support a new delivery model. We, at GHAT, are looking at new approaches and timelines for our participatory and place-making programmes in order to navigate a way through.

There will be one. With all the different strands of research and practical learning, recording and remembering our journey through the lockdown will be important in developing creative programmes. But patience and partnership is the key.


Grampian Hospitals Art trust (GHAT) is an award winning arts and health organisation which exists to enhance the wellbeing and experience of all who spend time in NHS Grampian hospitals, whether patients, visitors or staff. Find out more about GHAT over on their website.

This article was published on 03 Jul 2020