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  • Introduction to Hospital Rooms with Senior Project Curator Anna Testar
  • Ella Rowe-Hall

Introduction to Hospital Rooms with Senior Project Curator Anna Testar

Introduction to Hospital Rooms with Senior Project Curator Anna Testar

Hospital Rooms is an arts and mental health charity that commissions extraordinary artworks for inpatient mental health wards across the country. For their current project, in collaboration with Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, they have commissioned twelve artists to create brand new, permanent, site-specific artworks for the inpatient mental health wards in Bodmin and Redruth.

We were thrilled to interview the wonderful Anna Testar, Senior Project Curator at Hospital Rooms who is leading the project. Anna unveils the passion behind each project and how art can be a vehicle for change.

Local artist Ben Sanderson motioning painting over and discussing wall sized artwork

How long have you been with Hospital Rooms, and what inspired you to join the charity?

“I joined Hospital Rooms two years ago, in August 2021. I’d been following the organisation since it was founded five years earlier, because it combined two of my biggest passions – art and mental health – and was doing something that felt both ground-breaking and desperately needed. My educational and professional background is in art, but I have always had a strong interest in mental health. It underpinned my studies in art and art history, and I’ve been a Samaritans volunteer since 2017 which has given me an unusually private insight into the difficulties faced by people living with severe and enduring mental illness.

The complete anonymity of the service means that people feel able to express themselves more openly and deeply than they might ever have before. The many conversations I’ve had over the years have helped me to understand how impossible life is for so many people, and the extent to which this is dictated by circumstances beyond an individual’s control. Hospital Rooms is doing something to change that, in a way that has a direct and immediate impact on some of the most marginalised and vulnerable people in society.”

Staff and patients around the table at the Cove Ward creative workshop

How many projects have you worked on so far? And is there a certain project that stands out for you?

“The project in Cornwall is my third with Hospital Rooms. Last year, I was working with Devon Partnership Trust to produce fifteen new artworks for the mental health wards at Torbay Hospital, and before that I worked with the Mother and Baby Unit at Bethlem Royal Hospital in South London.

Every project is so different depending on the type of ward, the sensibilities of each artist, the geographical area of the hospital and its cultural, historical and socio-economic characteristics, so they each have their own meaning to me.

For this project, I’ve actually moved to Cornwall, so in that sense it particularly stands out. I have naturally been much more immersed in the place and the community that the hospital serves, which has given me much more insight not only into the things that make this place so special, but also the many challenges faced by people in Cornwall.

This is a complex and multi-layered but hopefully ground-breaking project which is attempting to transform the role that art plays within the mental health wards here, as well as building fruitful, long-term relationships between the hospital and the many brilliant artists and arts organisations across Cornwall. With each Hospital Rooms project, we hope our impact becomes greater and more fundamental.”  


Discussions over artwork at The Tate St. Ives creative workshop

What does your role typically entail, and are there certain challenges with each project which you have to overcome?

“My job is to lead on individual Hospital Rooms projects from start to finish. It’s a very varied job, combining creative and curatorial elements with a high level of coordination and project management. I commission artists and work closely with each of them – from the content of the workshops they run through to the development of their artwork and how it responds to the ward and the interactions they’ve had with patients and staff. Meanwhile, I am generating enthusiasm for the project among hospital staff, building partnerships with other arts organisations who might be able to continue our work after our projects are completed, and ensuring that our work is sustainable and lasting beyond the lifespan of a project.

We encourage artists to create proposals that are as creative and ambitious as anything they might make for a museum commission, but the environments we work in are extremely complex and carry a high level of risk. The journey from workshops to ideas to installation is very thorough and requires a lot of collaboration with patients and staff, and problem solving with our own technical team.

My brain is engaged in different ways almost daily – creatively supporting artists with ideas and content, logically problem-solving and seeking safe ideas and solutions, as well as emotionally and empathetically engaging with the impact of certain imagery on someone who is very unwell. At the heart of all of this is an attempt to encourage people to think differently, to challenge their notion of what’s possible in these settings.”

What is it like collaborating with different businesses on each project? And what does our involvement mean to you?

“We’re always humbled by the support we receive from our partners – without it, we couldn’t do this work. It’s heart-warming to see the enthusiasm and keenness to collaborate and get involved, and to help us keep going.

St. Eval is a lovely organisation to work with, and we share a desire to make the world a better place. You are providing job opportunities to people locally, actively protecting and enhancing the natural environment, and promoting wellbeing – things that are all important to us. When I visited the beautiful factory farm at St Eval, everyone was so friendly and the atmosphere was very peaceful - I had a strong sense that this is a happy place to be.”


Image of lavender amongst pieces of paper used in the Cove Ward creative workshop

What impact do you believe art has on hospital wards, and why do you feel this is important?


“Art is fundamental to us as human beings, and it’s something that everyone should have access to.

From my experience, mental health wards work hard to incorporate art and creative activity into day to day life, but resourcing of staff and funding just isn’t adequate for it to be a priority.

Art gives people a language to communicate complex thoughts, feelings and experiences, to connect with other people, and to free the mind and enter new worlds. This is so important if you’re experiencing something that is difficult to put into words, at a time when you’re struggling to have a voice.”


A patient from the Cove Ward drawing from inspiration at The Tate St. Ives creative workshop

How did the partnership with Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust come about?

“It all started with a conversation at Trebah Garden between Ben Sanderson, an artist who had worked with Hospital Rooms before, and Cathy English, a wonderful psychiatrist who works for the Trust. Ben was running a residency at Trebah, where he was inviting specialists such as Cathy to walk around the garden with him and discuss the space between people and plants. Cathy is passionate about art and its importance in supporting the recovery of people with mental health difficulties, so after hearing about Hospital Rooms she got in touch with us to find out whether we could run a project in Cornwall. She made such a powerful case for the importance of our work that Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust agreed to go ahead.”

How are you feeling about the project ahead, and what things excite you about it being based in Cornwall?

“Cornwall is a wonderfully creative place and every artist we’ve commissioned has approached this uniquely challenging and complex task with intuition, sensitivity, and a lot of brilliant ideas. The level of support and enthusiasm from across the Trust – from healthcare workers on the ground to senior management – makes me feel very optimistic about the success of this project and its legacy. We’ve also been very fortunate to have a partnership with Tate St Ives, who have welcomed patients and staff into the galleries for workshops and gallery tours, and provided training for staff in how to engage patients in conversations about art without any background knowledge.”

What, do you hope, are the long-term benefits of this partnership with the inpatient mental health wards at Camborne and Redruth Community Hospital and Bodmin Community Hospital?


“We would like to see art and creative activity at the heart of everyday life on the wards and playing a central role in people’s recovery. We also want to break down the barriers to engaging with art in the community, so that art continues to be a close companion after people have been discharged from hospital and as they rebuild their lives, perhaps even reducing their chances of readmission. We would also like to contribute towards better working environments and greater job satisfaction for staff, and play a role in reducing staff turnover.

Our overarching aim on any project is to transform run-down, bleak mental health settings into inspiring, soothing environments where people can find hope for a better future. As well as the physical environment, this also means providing people with the tools and language with which to express themselves creatively and reclaim some agency at a time when it has been all but removed. We want to challenge the idea that art is a luxury, and that it can only be enjoyed and practised by certain people with certain backgrounds or skills.”


Image of blue stained hands from paper making at The Tate St. Ives's creative workshop

We were delighted to get the chance to speak with Hospital Room’s Anna, sparking conversations on creative practices, listening to her depth of knowledge and digging deeper into what it means to be a part of Hospital Rooms.

As ever, we feel truly honoured to be involved in such an incredible project, and to be collaborating with such an astounding group of people.

We would love to thank Hospital Rooms again for this eye-opening opportunity, and for all the incredible projects, workshops and daily things they do. We can’t wait for the rest of the project to unfold, and to witness the efforts and processes involved in forming the final transformative artworks.

Follow along for the journey across our blogs, and keep updated on Instagram @_hospitalrooms and @stevalcandles for all things Hospital Rooms.

  • Post author
    Ella Rowe-Hall