Embedding the arts in community health and wellbeing through new collaborations

A group of women discuss images laid out on a table
© Greg Morrison for Dulwich Picture Gallery

Dulwich Picture Gallery and NHS South East London Clinical Commissioning Group are working in partnership on an exciting creative arts programme for the new Tessa Jowell Health Centre in East Dulwich in London Borough of Southwark. The project came out of a shared vision to address the significant health inequalities in the local community through engagement in arts and creativity.

Jane Findlay, the Gallery’s Head of Programme and Engagement, and Lucy Perman, now freelance and formerly the Gallery’s Project Director Future Plan, have been working together on this project since 2019. They set out below the journey of the project and the learning to date.


We were first contacted by Southwark Clinical Commissioning Group (now NHS South East London CCG) in Summer 2019 to explore the idea of integrating art into the environment and the day-to-day programme of a new health centre then being built on the site of the old Dulwich Community Hospital. The Tessa Jowell Health Centre, which opened in June this year, is an integrated healthcare hub combining GP, mental health and hospital services from South East London and serving a local population of 250,000. A short walk away from the centre is Dulwich Picture Gallery, the world’s first purpose-built public art gallery, built in 1811 to house a collection of Baroque masterpieces. Alongside curating a highly regarded year-round exhibition programme of artists ranging from Ravilious to Rembrandt, the Gallery has a long-running learning and community engagement programme with a number of arts and health projects that contribute to the Gallery’s wider vision for everyone to ‘Find yourself in art’. Our work at the Gallery is based on the belief that art can make a profound difference to health, from acute conditions to general health and everyday wellbeing.

This project aims to position the Tessa Jowell Health Centre as a leading model of good practice in the arts and health national policy arena, with the potential to influence and inform other health settings with its inclusive design approach and vibrant creative programme. Four work strands are underway: enhancing the healing environment through co-produced artworks; delivering a cross artform creative programme to improve wellbeing for patients, carers and staff with community and cultural partners; devising a social prescribing model with identified cultural activities and referral pathways; and evaluating the impact of the project to support the development of future health and wellbeing plans.

Right from our first meetings with the CCG, it became clear that there was huge potential for art within the new building and grounds – as well as opportunities to embed the arts within social prescribing. Exploratory discussions soon became more formal as we entered into an open competition and tendering process to lead this work. The process took some time as we and the CCG navigated how an arts organisation should approach tendering for a health contract. That process took a bit longer when we hit an election purdah period because, by this time, the local authority – Southwark Council – was also on board as a key partner. By the end of January, some six months later, we had secured the contract and were finally ready to go.

As it turned out, we then had only six weeks of work before the pandemic struck. During this time, however, extensive consultation took place with partners and we were able to establish relationships with the Centre’s clinical leads and management – and to draft the Creative Arts strategy for CCG to sign off. The project then had to go on pause for several months as the country went into lockdown and Gallery staff were furloughed, but the CCG managed to complete the building project.  We started up again in July, reshaping our offer in light of the new COVID-secure requirements and with an NHS partner now under significant pressure.

Our project was finding its feet at the same time as the new building was opening and services were learning to work together for the first time – and during a pandemic! Whilst this has at times been challenging, there is a strong commitment from everyone to make this happen. The shared Gallery/CCG vision and a strong partnership have helped to steer the project. Indeed, the need for the project deepened as the pandemic became more acute and the relevance of the work came into sharp focus for all stakeholders.

Working on a new project during the pandemic has required flexibility, patience and tenacity. Regular communication with our project team and the clinical providers at the Centre has been essential. Despite the pressure on NHS staff we have found the local team has a big appetite to get involved. Offering creative ways of addressing health needs is positive and inspiring – especially for health practitioners; the impact on them of this innovative offer cannot be underestimated, helping to shine a light in often dark times.

For the Gallery team, working through the pandemic has meant being prepared to change and then change again, always remembering to communicate changes to partners so that there are no surprises. An example of this ‘doing what we can’ approach is the patient consultation for newly-commissioned creative seating. Originally this would have been carried out face-to-face but now consultation is being carried out via Zoom calls and Google docs to ensure that Centre users will have their say in what the courtyard seating will look like. This reflects the project’s new ‘blended approach’, adapting delivery to online where necessary.

This lengthy journey has enabled us to establish a particularly strong relationship with the CCG. We have spent time on developing a shared understanding and ethos, and finding common ground with values and language. This last has been a good provocation, challenging ourselves not to get stuck in ‘arts-speak’ but to provide tangible examples and clear meaning about the arts and their benefits on health and wellbeing.

We are fortunate in Southwark to have excellent local champions and a new culture, health and wellbeing partnership; this provides a good foundation for the project and its emerging infrastructure. The long lead-in time has also given us the opportunity to connect with others working locally in the arts and health field – many have come on board as partners in the pilot phase (including the City of London Sinfonia, Dragon Café and Breathe Health Research), to deliver training (Clod Ensemble) and to provide local community services (Link Age Southwark). We were also delighted to be chosen to help deliver Healthy London Partnerships’ social prescribing pilot programme, co-funded with Arts Council England and the GLA/Mayor of London.

Sharing the work, finding connections, learning from others in the field have all been crucial elements of launching the project. Looking after these relationships will be a leading priority in determining the project’s success. Whilst there is now much evidence on the positive impact of arts on health and wellbeing, there is less shared learning about delivery models. For us, shaping delivery together with partners who share our vision and understand the local arts and health ecosystem has been a rewarding iterative process. Strong communication and investing time in nurturing our partnership will continue to be a priority; in many ways, this continues to reflect the way that artists engage with communities across the country, improving their health and wellbeing through meaningful and creative relationships.

Contact Jane - learning@dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk and Lucy - lucy@lucyperman.com