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Leeds General Infirmary

Location: Leeds General Infirmary, UK

Artist: Lisa Watts


The Boardroom is a panoramic, digitally compiled, colour photograph showing members of the Property and Support Services (PSS) support staff involved in some of the essential roles they perform for the Trust, set within the Infirmary’s Boardroom. This large image was created by a group of PSS support staff who volunteered to work on the project. Performance and media artist, Lisa Watts facilitated the project, assisting the group to create, discuss and develop their image making skills. A wide variety of media including visual performance, video and digital image manipulation aided their progress in decision-making skills. The project took 18 months from planning to completion and resulted in a 4.5m x 2.5m picture which is permanently installed by the lifts on the ground floor in the Jubilee Building of Leeds General Infirmary (LGI). The project was set up and supported by Arts in Healthcare, now called Tonic, the arts and environments programme for the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.

Staff Morale

The starting point of the project was in early 1998 at a meeting of the Property and Support Services managers, attended also by Gail Bolland, the Arts and Environment Co-ordinator, at which the high turnover and low morale of support staff, and the difficulties in recruiting new staff were discussed. Gail was reminded of a project in New York where Mierle Laderman Ukeles had become the artist-in-residence at the City’s Sanitation Department. Working with the refuse collectors on a number of arts projects, Ukeles had enabled both them and the public to acknowledge the valuable work of the Department, raising the self-esteem and morale of the workers. Gail Bolland proposed an arts project as a means of addressing the issue of low morale amongst PSS support staff at LGI. The idea was welcomed as an ideal way for PSS to mark the 50th anniversary of the NHS. The project was supported at the highest level within the hospital management and line managers in PSS were encouraged to give it their active support.

Artist’s Brief

Lisa Watts, a performance and visual artist who has an interest in facilitating art projects within a social context, was identified by the Arts Co-ordinator who had heard her speaking about her work. After an interview with the hospital management which discussed her previous work and her approach to working with groups, she was invited to facilitate a project with support staff at the Infirmary. The artist’s brief outlined the objectives of the project to give greater prominence to support staff within the hospital, to raise their self esteem and highlight their important role in supporting the more visible medical staff, and to produce a permanent work for the Jubilee Building. The project budget was set at £8,500. As the project progressed, it became clear that more time was needed for the group to develop a presentation of work. With the agreement of the Steering Group, the project ran for longer and went over budget to £10,500.

Project Group

PSS support staff were invited to take part in the project and a group of nine volunteers from Domestic, Portering, Laundry, Catering and Gardening Services was formed. They were released from their duties for 2 hour arts sessions with Lisa Watts every Friday afternoon over a five month period. The project was a collaborative process between Lisa Watts and the group in that she brought along her skills in making art and images, and the group provided discussions and ideas about working in the hospital and their particular jobs. The group drew up their own ground rules to enable a democracy to operate. This aided their learning in the processes of, and confidence in, making images, representations and finished art products, with the use of digital lens-based media. In the final stages of the project, the focus of the work became the intention to portray the group’s imagination and wit as a sign of intelligence, in a place of status - the Boardroom. The final work involved imagery such as: a portrait of a past trustee holding an NHS cleaning bucket; flowers planted in the cracks of the Boardroom table; a member of support staff mounted as a hunting trophy; a ceremonial arch of mops; and tiny wheelchairs zooming out of the Boardroom fireplace.

The Image

This was an unusual public art project in that at the beginning of it, neither the group nor Lisa Watts had any idea what the final work would be or would look like. The project was not prescribed with an artistic vision, led by the artist, in which the hospital workers participated only to fulfil her vision. It was approached as a collaborative process and with an openness to possibilities in which both parties learnt about each others’ professional knowledge and skills.

Some of the early images were exhibited to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the NHS in July 1998. This display and a special edition of the Property and Support Services ‘Heard the News’ newsletter helped give a high profile to the project within the hospital whilst it was going on. The Boardroom hangs in a prominent location by the lifts in the Jubilee Wing where it is seen by hundreds of people daily, and has a text panel beside it explaining how the work was made and who was involved.


The project was evaluated from the perspective of those who took part and through responses to the work of hospital staff and visitors. A review meeting with the group on their last session produced very positive feedback. They said that they had enjoyed working as a team with other Support Services departments and learning what the jobs of others entail, and they felt that the final work successfully celebrates the hidden hands of the NHS. A survey of 70 interviews with people passing by the large photograph display was carried out by the Arts Co-ordinator using a standard questionnaire. This showed that most had noticed the art work and that two thirds felt that it had succeeded in its aim of depicting different types of Support Services jobs. There was a mixed response to whether the piece improved understanding of the role of PSS support staff within the NHS; visitors felt it did improve understanding, but only about 20% of staff agreed. There was however overwhelming agreement that the arts can address issues of awareness and that more projects of this kind should take place.

© Copyright Joanna Morland 2000