The Wick - Portrait of Niamh White, Co-Founder of Hospital Rooms The Wick - Portrait of Niamh White, Co-Founder of Hospital Rooms
Monday Muse

Interview Niamh White, Co-Founder of Hospital Rooms

Niamh White
15 May 2023
Niamh White
15 May 2023
Following a successful first year of collaboration, raising £325,000, Hospital Rooms, an arts and mental health charity co-founded by Niamh White, will be continuing its partnership with gallery Hauser & Wirth this year. Through a series of initiatives, including an open-air exhibition for World Mental Health Day featuring Hurvin Anderson and Alvin Kofi, it will be raising funds to transform three more NHS mental health units in Sandwell, Hellesdon and Cornwall.

After co-founding Hospital Rooms with her partner, artist Tim A Shaw, White has co-led its strategic growth over the past seven years and its transition into an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation in 2023. A visual arts curator, she has also commissioned leading artists including Sonia Boyce, Julian Opie and Anish Kapoor to help re-envision clinical mental health units as more appealing and healing spaces. Here, she shares her long-term hopes for the initiative…

THE WICK:   Tell us about your typical Monday.

Niamh White:   Every day is different at Hospital Rooms but of all days, Mondays do tend to have more of a structure. We have a morning meeting, which is a rare moment when we all come together. Our team can be all over the place geographically – our main office is in London, we have a satellite office in Cornwall, our research lead Haley is based in New Zealand, and we have projects taking place in Norwich and Sandwell. It’s really important to make sure everyone has the chance to connect and understand what each team is working on. After that, I have various internal meetings that can cover everything from curatorial to environmental impact, to finances and participation. I tend to get out in the world later in the week.

TW:   Who is your ultimate Monday Muse?

NW:   The Hospital Rooms team inspire me daily. They work so passionately to deliver our projects and make life better within the mental health system. Many of them also have their own artistic practices. One of our project curators Siphiwe Mnguni is a phenomenal artist and I recently bought one of her drawings, ‘Tentative Hands’. I have no doubt that she is one to watch for the future and will do incredible things.

TW:   What is your long-term ambition for Hospital Rooms?

NW:   When we set up Hospital Rooms, we intended on undertaking a few project-based initiatives and we were fully prepared for and almost expecting failure. We faced huge resistance in the beginning. It was unimaginable at that point that it would take the shape it is today with over 20 staff and just shy of £1 million turnover each year. Today, we aim to change the face of mental healthcare and ensure every person within mental health services has access to high quality creative and cultural experiences.

TW:   How do you see art as a healing tool?

NW:   At Hospital Rooms, we never set out to heal anyone. We can see a very tangible problem in that people with severe mental health conditions are treated in sterile, abrasive, and often dilapidated spaces. This is acknowledged and well documented in various published papers from the CQC [an independent healthcare regulator], white papers published by the government and the NHS themselves. We believe that in these distressing circumstances, where words often fail, what you see and what is communicated to you visually is of the utmost importance. We think space can have dynamic and caring properties, that it can offer people a sense of dignity, give a view of another world, acknowledge suffering and bring hope. We have seen how working equitably and collaboratively with artists to address this issue can have transformational and profound impacts on people. This has been the recurring outcome of our work.

“We think space can have dynamic and caring properties, that it can offer people a sense of dignity, give a view of another world, acknowledge suffering and bring hope.”

TW:   How do you feel we can best work with art to reform mental healthcare?

NW:   The mental healthcare system is broken. There are burgeoning waiting lists, crippling staff shortages and dilapidated buildings. We need artists and creatives to help imagine radically new routes out of this situation and conjure solutions no one has thought of. As in all realms of society, access to creativity, art, poetry, should be a normal aspect of life.

TW:   How has Hauser & Wirth supported your mission?

NW:   Tim and I both started our careers at Hauser & Wirth and they have been extremely supportive of our work. We currently have a three-year partnership that aims to raise awareness, bring acclaimed artists together to contribute to our mission, and to raise much-needed funds to bring our ideas and concepts into reality. This summer, they will host an exhibition ‘Holding Space’ in their London gallery and collaborate with us on a fundraising auction at Bonhams. They have been absolutely pivotal to our growth.

TW:   Tell us about the latest Hospital Rooms projects.

NW:   We have a number of projects taking place at the moment. In Sandwell, we are working with young people and artists to transform a run-down children and adolescent outpatient service. Young people will take part in a creative programme throughout the summer holidays and completely transform the building by 2024. We’ve set up a new office in Cornwall to run a year-long project with Bodmin and Redruth Hospitals, in partnership with Tate St Ives and a number of other local cultural organisations. This project focuses on our legacy and how we can embed long-term creative programmes that last beyond our initial projects. We’re also commencing a project in a new-build hospital in Norwich, working with architects, the university, clinicians and the community to radically re-think what a mental health space can be. Finally, we’ll be re-launching our Digital Art School this year, which has reached 36 countries, 300 postcodes in the UK and whose main audience are people within mental health services.

TW:   How do you balance work and life working with your partner?

NW:   Tim and I border on telepathic at this stage. We’re equal and opposite in almost every way, which can make things happen at a rapid pace as a result. It’s a very joyful situation but it can mean that work never stops. We’re extremely passionate and it’s difficult to be another way. Our amazing son plays an important role in taking us away from mental health spaces and into different imaginative worlds.

TW:   If you could work with any artists for Hospital Rooms, who would you choose?

NW:   There are many. I I’d love to work with Lubaina Himid. The questions she posed in her Tate show – ‘we live in buildings but do they fit us?’ – played over in my mind endlessly and the publication was fantastic. I’d love to explore this idea with her in relation to a mental health environment.

TW:   Where is your favourite culturally curious spot in London?

NW:   We’ve just completed a landmark project at Springfield Hospital in Tooting where we commissioned 20 major artworks for the site. It is the first project where our artworks can be viewed by the visiting public. It is an endeavour in disarming the mental health institution and trying to convey hope, connection and value to those people coming through – whether they receive care or not. There are a number of monumental pieces by Michelle Williams Gamaker, Sutapa Biswas, Yinka Ilori and Alvin Kofi as you enter.

TW:   What three things would you take to a desert island?

NW:   Tim made a painting called ‘In This World’ when our son Lorcan was born. It’s sentimental on so many levels. Self Esteem’s Prioritise Pleasure album. And my mum’s magic chocolate pudding.


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