Children's Art Program at Sydney Children's Hospital

The childrens art program at Sydney Childrens Hospital, Randwick, has revealed that exhibitions of childrens art, in the context of a child-oriented environment, are at least as significant to their target audience as art by adult professionals. The childrens art program is administered by a company called Identity, Environment and Art, which specialises in developing art and cultural programs, primarily in health facilities. The plan included commissioned artworks by professional artists, murals, interactive wall panels and integrated mosaics.

The children's art program at Sydney Children's Hospital, Randwick, has revealed that exhibitions of children's art, in the context of a child-oriented environment, are at least as significant to their target audience as art by adult professionals.

The children's art program is administered by a company called Identity, Environment and Art, which specialises in developing art and cultural programs, primarily in health facilities. In 1997 Identity, Environment and Art was contracted to draw up and implement an Arts and Cultural Plan linked to the redevelopment of Sydney Children's Hospital. The planning involved patients, families, staff and the local community, and established policies for the arts in the hospital. The plan also established the Sydney Children's Gallery in the main corridors of the hospital, a gallery specialising in children's art. In 1997, the gallery became part of the Cultural Gifts Program of the Australian Taxation Office.

During the implementation of the plan, Identity commissioned artworks from professional artists for the main public areas within the hospital. They included a kinetic sculpture of butterflies for the main entry lobby, murals for the Allied Health Waiting Rooms and Physiotherapy Department, interactive wall panels for the Accident and Emergency Department, and integrated mosaics for the Physiotherapy Courtyard and the Star Café.

The first exhibition the hospital hosted was an art competition for local children. There were over 300 entries and it became very clear that children's artwork was a popular choice for the long, featureless corridors of the hospital. People actually stopped, looked and discussed the artwork on the walls. Even small children in strollers pointed at the works. The decision that we would only have children's artwork in the main corridors was easily made.

Almost all of the children's art displayed in the hospital is on loan. It comes from either the Sydney Children's Hospital School (most children go to school even when they are sick), local schools (both public and private), as well as from children's art schools and holiday camps. At any one time the hospital may have 200 artworks by children up on the walls, both in the corridors and in the wards.

The participating schools are all very supportive of the Arts for Health Program and the students enjoy coming into the Sydney Children's Hospital to see their artworks up on the walls. Many of the children, or their siblings, have been patients here and it helps them to regard the hospital in a different light. It makes the building more user-friendly and less clinical, providing a welcome distraction both for patients and visitors.

The ages of the child artists ranges five to 15 (kindergarten/reception to Year 10). Works range from the very naive to the very sophisticated and I am always amazed at the talent and the ideas that the children display. When a work is very good we ask the child to donate their art to the hospital and we have it framed and hung permanently in the wards or waiting areas. It is genuinely satisfying when a relative rings asking where the work is hanging and if they can come in and see it.

The works that we hang are oil, acrylic, watercolour, collage, pastel, pencil, print and photographic. They nearly always reflect an art topic being studied at school. Quite often we will have works from three different schools on show simultaneously which can be fascinating because each school will interpret and express the curriculum exercise in a different way. It is fun spotting the odd artistic influence in some of the works: Gauguin and Matisse seem to be all-time favourites; recently Brett Whiteley's palette and forms are pervasive.

Lucinda Bartrum, who had been an exchange teacher at St Aloysius College in Bandung, Indonesia, initiated our first touring exhibition. The Indonesian children had made drawings in oil pastels of games that they played at school. Pupils at Maroubra Primary did the same exercise, but in watercolour and collage. Maroubra Senior School students then taught the children in Primary School how to transfer these images to acetate film and print them onto paper. This exhibition toured Australia with a school in each state adding to the exhibition. At the conclusion of the tour the hospital was presented with 15 of the works (five Indonesian, five watercolours and five acetate prints) and they are now part of our permanent collection, hanging in the hospital's Executive Unit.

In 1998 the hospital organised an artist-in-residence program through the British Airways Creative Connection exchange program. A young British artist, Sarah Cole, was sponsored to work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in the Youth Programs Department. As part of the MCA's program Sarah worked in the Adolescent Ward where she and the children created a number of artworks which included two glass murals, x-ray prints (actually photocopies on film), a large painting (which now hangs in the play room) and a 'dream bed'. The 'dream bed' installation was wonderful. It was an old hospital bed that had been bandaged and 'grown' wings. The final touch was a curtain made up of photographic slides which the children had made themselves by drawing holiday scenes on acetate film, which hung around the bed. It really was a bed of dreams.

The 'art gallery' is a working hospital. Patients are wheeled to and from the operating theatre and wards on trolleys and the corridors are also escape routes in the case of an emergency evacuation. This means that art has to be on canvas or behind glass, and that three-dimensional work cannot be exhibited. Works are hung for two or three months and then returned to the school to be given back to the children. Once the parents of a child who died asked if they could have a particular painting, as it was their daughter's favourite and they wanted to have the memory of her enjoying the painting each time they looked at it.

The emphasis at Sydney Children's Hospital is on an environment that is child and family friendly, one that treats the whole person and not just the disease. By lending us their art the children are helping us to create a hospital that projects a caring and friendly image from the moment patients and their families walk through the front door. The extraordinary thing about the children's art is that everybody loves it. At weekends, when life on the wards slows down and school is not open, the artwork becomes especially important. The changing exhibitions provide entertainment for the parents and their child-patients, who often spend hours walking up and down the corridors looking at the art.

Exhibitions of children's artwork are becoming increasingly popular. The (other) Sydney Children's Hospital, at Westmead, has an annual competition and exhibition in conjunction with the Department of Education and the Penrith Panthers Leagues Club called Operation Art. From this competition the best works are hung in the Art Gallery of New South Wales and are on the hospital's and Art Gallery's websites. The art goes on to tour the regional galleries of New South Wales and is then installed permanently at the Children's Hospital, Westmead, where it complements the permanent 'fine art' collection of works by leading Australian artists.

There is also growing corporate support for children's art. Qantas, for example, held an Australia-wide art competition early in 2001, entitled 'Spirit of Australia Kids Competition'. This competition received thousands of poems, paintings, songs and videos and was judged by Elizabeth Ann Macgregor (Director, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney), Olympians Susie O'Neill and Cathy Freeman, and Dare Jennings of Mambo. The prize-winning entries are now displayed in QANTAS Club Lounges at all major airports around Australia and can be seen on the QANTAS website.

Children's art does not patronise the patients in the hospital in the way that animated pop imagery or adult art deemed suitable for children can. At Sydney Children's Hospital, Randwick, it is definitely more popular and elicits a greater response than non-child art from all who use the hospital - patients, their families, visitors and hospital staff.