Vercity Career Profile – Laura Waters
Introducing Laura Waters, Head of Arts at the University Hospitals of Derby and Burton NHS Foundation Trust.
Your role at Vercity is unique. Could you share a little about what’s involved?
As Head of Arts for the Trust but employed by Vercity, I run the arts programme across five hospital sites, based in Derby and Burton. The main hospital is the Royal Derby, which is the PFI Project.
My job is to run all aspects of the arts programme. We put on visual arts exhibitions, commission public art, music performance, other sorts of performance like drama and dance. We do patient publications, staff well-being clubs and staff training.
There’s patient participation too, so lots of workshops as well as the performances. It’s a huge variety of work and recently we’ve also been doing quite a lot on the enhancement side of things. So that’s interior design, colour choice, choosing furniture and putting murals into wards and staff rooms.
Is there a typical day in your job?
It is a varied job, and no two days are the same. A lot of my day like everybody else is on email as it’s a lot of project management, organising and setting things up with external suppliers. I identify need within the hospital for a project, and then work out which people or companies might be involved in delivering the work. I might be booking musicians to come on site to play, or working with the design company who are going to come on site and do a whole redesign of an area, or it might be talking to estates and capital projects about displays, maintenance schedules and gardens.
We create outside courtyards and gardens as well, remembrance gardens for staff and for members of the public.
I do spend quite a lot of time on the wards. talking to staff about what they would like and being the liaison point between external suppliers who are coming in to deliver work in the hospital.
How has the remit of your role, and your team developed?
One of the recent projects we’ve done, which is lovely, is in all the chemo bays. We’ve got five big chemo bays in Derby and each of these until about three weeks ago, were plain beige walls with institutional clocks as décor – an uninspiring place to have your treatment in. These patients are coming in for hours to have chemotherapy and were sitting in beige boxes to have their treatment.
What we’ve designed on the five bays is British woodland scenes, but for each season of the year, so they have got spring, summer, autumn, and winter rooms. Each of these scenes has been designed with the room in mind. The design fits with all the sinks and cupboards wall fittings. It’s a high-density design with lots of details and things to look at, so in the hours spent there, patients are looking into the woodland and seeing lots of little animals and trees. It’s been done in a stylized way. It’s very interesting and relaxing to look at with lots of beautiful colours.
We’ve asked the staff to do before and after questionnaires with the patients, so we’re going to get the data from how people felt being in the plain rooms having the treatment to what it feels like being in the newly designed rooms.
Yes, there are now seven of us on the Air Arts team. There used to be just me, and I got freelance artists and volunteers to work on the projects, but now we have seven people, 4 of whom are employed by the NHS Trust.
We’ve got a team member based permanently on the Burton sites, which are the sites that we merged with and then we’ve got two Arts coordinators, who are nominally based in Derby; one runs the patient participation side and the other runs stuff wellbeing, and we’ve got a visual arts manager, a music coordinator and a communications coordinator. Everyone else is part time, and has a very specific role, which means that we can deliver the project across our Burton, Tamworth, and Lichfield sites as well. It has grown enormously in the last couple of years.
You’re a musician too. How do you balance that with the expanded Head of Arts role?
Being a musician and working in the day is quite easy, because almost all the music stuff I do is in the evenings and weekends, so it fits well. I’ve got a rehearsal tonight, and I’m doing a gig tomorrow night in Birmingham, which is very exciting. That’s for Birmingham Pride weekend. I play with the Secret Symphony Limelight Orchestra and one of the most exciting things we did in the summer was Trentham Live in Stoke-on-Trent, playing with Judge Jules.
I also play classically, orchestras and string quartets. I’ve got a concert coming up in a couple of weeks with Bristol Classical players. With Stephen Hough, playing Rachmaninov’s fourth Piano Concerto in Cheltenham. It’s a nice mixture of doing different sorts of concerts. It balances nicely with the day job and it’s a great way for me to de-stress.
What would you say have been significant highlights for you in in your role?
One of the main highlights was during the pandemic when I was approached by Damien Hirst’s team asking if we would like to accept a piece of work by Damien, his butterfly rainbow. He had 50 reproductions of it that he wanted to give to NHS trusts. I was approached to accept one for Air Arts, which now hangs in the Royal Derby. I also then put him in touch with all the other hospitals in the UK. There are now 50 hospitals in the UK with a Damian Hirst artwork up on the wall which is really quite something.
Can you share some activities which are coming up in the next few months?
We’ve got our Choral Forest concert coming up – the first time we have done a large-scale event in Lichfield Cathedral. At the concert, staff are reading poetry that they wrote during the pandemic. Our staff wellbeing choir is singing with the cathedral choir and our air arts musicians, who will play two pieces called a Grateful Heart and the Longest Winter, both of which have been written from words and quotes the staff gave us during the pandemic that our musicians have turned into songs.
Behind the choir will be five two-metre-tall wooden trees overlaid with layers of paper that one of our artists has created. The trees have images and words from our staff during the pandemic and are really beautiful and detailed. There are five trees, one representing each hospital in the trust.
Next week we’re going down to Birmingham to take part in a national award ceremony. Air Arts has been nominated for its Staff Wellbeing work as part of the national patient experience network. Because the knock-on effect of looking after your staff is that the patients have a better hospital experience as well.
What’s the most rewarding thing you’ve done in Air Arts since you’ve started?
A few years ago, I started an informal network of arts managers in the UK. This has now turned into an NPAG group, which is a National Performance Advisory Group. It’s now a recognised NHS professional body which I chair.
What that means is that Air Arts have been put right at the forefront of arts in health in in the UK. So that’s very exciting. I have a good network of people around the country and because of that, I get asked to represent arts in hospitals at national conferences and Government inquiries. It’s opened up some amazing opportunities to really champion the impact of the arts on health and wellbeing.
A crucial part of hospital experience is that it’s a calming environment, with positive experiences and positive distraction. It really does make a difference to people’s recovery times and length of stay and their overall mental state. It’s not just a ‘nice to have’, it’s an essential ingredient for a positive hospital experience.
Having an arts programme is a positive thing for the hospital in other ways too. It’s positive publicity for the Trust, and we bring a lot of money in for the charity. We do a lot of fundraising and receive grants from funds like Heritage Lottery and the Arts Council.
It’s great that there’s a move to develop projects like this through ESG budgets. In terms of PFI projects, it’s brilliant publicity and supports the relationship between the project co. and the Trust because both parties tangibly benefit from it. It enhances relationships to share something positive to work on.
Can you tell us something that we wouldn’t know about you?
I absolutely love being on boats. When I go on holiday, I’m normally found on the Norfolk Broads. I love sailing and rowing and just generally messing around on boats and being in being in nature and getting away from it all.
I also do a lot of yoga. And I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett as well, always listening to his books on Audible.