Taking care

CR Grad Guide: Rachel Louis, arts participation manager at Vital Arts, commissioning a creative programme for Barts Health NHS Trust to enhance patient wellbeing

Rachel Louis is the arts participation manager at Vital Arts, the contemporary arts organisation for Barts Health NHS Trust. They commission installations, residencies and arts programmes to improve patient experience at six east London hospitals.

What is your role at Vital Arts?

As arts participation manager, I work with artists, cultural organisations and medical staff to devise collaborative creative programmes across various art forms. These may be delivered through workshops or residencies and usually result in an exhibition, installation or resource such as a film, audio, CD, book or library.

Artists and I work with hospital patients of all ages, from neonatal babies to older adults. Each programme is designed to enhance patient wellbeing, provide professional development opportunities for staff and create stimulating spaces for patients, staff and the wider hospital community. It’s very important that we collaborate with artists who produce interesting work to a very high standard.

And how did you come to be working at the organisation?

I studied music and was a tour operator before working at Vital Arts, but I didn’t find the job very creative, so I started delivering after school music workshops for children in east London.

I became increasingly interested in arts outreach programmes, working beyond traditional audiences but found, at the time, that the quality of art was often not very innovative or inspiring.

When someone I had worked with told me about Vital Arts, and recommended me for a job there, it sounded perfect. The commissions, collections and exhibitions are of a reputable gallery standard … I didn’t feel there were many other organisations that made that impression on me at the time.

To begin with, I was mostly working on music programmes, but that’s since expanded. We’re a small team, so we’re involved in all areas of the business, which is brilliant. When I left university, I headed straight for big names, but now I enjoy working for a smaller company – you have more control over what you’re doing and feel like you can really make a difference.

What is an average day like?

Mornings are spent in the office attending meetings, preparing funding proposals or researching new artists and projects. In the afternoon, I assist artists on workshops – if they’re new, I’ll help them feel at ease and run things until they’re ready to take over. I also work with art schools – we’ve been working with students at Central Saint Martins on briefs, and are keen to work more with students and graduates in the future.

What would you say is the best thing about your job?

One of the best things is feeling like you’ve made a positive difference to someone’s stay in hospital. Hospitals can be so stressful and if we can distract someone from the pain, worry and boredom, that’s hugely rewarding.

People often say we give them something to think about and something positive to talk about when they have visitors … children might come to a session in tears, but within a few minutes they get distracted and are laughing and playing. The parents are always so grateful, and it’s good to see them relax.

I also feel very fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to expand the programme and experiment with different art forms – no day is the same and each project, if not new, is continually evolving. It’s exciting working with such incredible artists, and I find them all incredibly inspiring.

And the most challenging?

There are a lot of challenges – at the beginning, I found the endless ‘red tape’ so frustrating, but you learn to work around it. A huge part of this job is the ability to creatively problem solve. I did a ceramics workshop with Katharine Morling a few years ago, for example, and we couldn’t use clay because some patients might have had respiratory conditions, so we focused on sketching memories and objects instead, which she then made in her studio. Funding is another challenge – I have to fundraise for everything, but it’s just a fact of life at the moment, and I really believe the projects are a worthy cause.

What are the core skills needed for your role? 

You need great communication skills – building relationships with patients, doctors and artists is crucial, and so is the ability to write fundraising applications. It also requires good project managements skills – I think this is where a lot of artists aren’t interested, but I really enjoy the background work. Experience of producing creative outcomes, for example printing, is helpful, as is experience of delivering workshops or teaching.

What advice do you have for people who’d like to work in a similar field?

There are a lot of opportunities now to deliver and experience arts outreach projects with homeless people, older adults, and in hospitals, prisons and schools. Look around, and start there. It may be as a volunteer, but it will teach you a lot, first hand, about how it all works. And don’t give up! I find that opportunities will present themselves to you, you just have to keep your eyes open.


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