09/03/2021 Creativity on prescription in Leeds

Two women wearing white doctors coats with paint stains pose with their hands to their mouths
The Art Doctors Alison McIntyre and Liz Stirling

Although I have been artist for over 20 years and my fellow co-founder Liz, is a lecturer at Leeds Beckett University in the School of Art, Architecture and Design, neither of us have felt particularly comfortable within the art world. We talked about how galleries and contemporary art were not seen by a lot of people in the same way as theatre, film, museums or other cultural avenues, and that there were often a lot of barriers to people feeling confident about engaging with contemporary art. This inspired us to launch the Art Doctors. 

We gather near art galleries, events and online, wearing our paint splattered coats and stethoscopes. With prescription pads at the ready, we may prescribe some art for you to go and look at or a creative activity for you to try at home. 

We love thinking about art and creativity as a starting point for conversations and we firmly believe that every response is valid and important, whether you see yourself as an expert or not. We also believe in the power of fun. 

Since our launch in 2015, we have prescribed art at various galleries, museums and events including the British Art Show, Love Arts Festival, Chapel Allerton Arts Festival, Kirklees Festival etc. We are connectors and act as a bridge between people and contemporary art. 

As part of our drive to break down barriers and make it easier for people to enjoy contemporary art, we co-produced a toolkit with lots of different cards that you can take with you in an art gallery. You can view it online here. 

Although we started with prescriptions for contemporary art, we quickly developed to offer everyday creativity on prescription as well and have become particularly interested in how creative activity can impact mental health and wellbeing. 

One memorable experience was at Kirkstall Festival when we were at the festival with Thackray Medical Museum’s Emergency Museum. The museum is housed in an ambulance and a very elderly man came over to take a photograph of us. We offered him a prescription for some creative activities. and asked him how he was feeling, that encouraged him to share more about his circumstances. He told us that his wife was in a hospital and she had terminal cancer. I remember thinking I have no idea what to prescribe him in this situation, because whatever we do is going to seem frivolous. 

During the conversation he mentioned his camera and that sparked some ideas. His wife was asleep a lot and he found it difficult to find things to talk about when she was awake. We discussed how during his hospital visits, while his wife was asleep, he would look around in the room and observe things he could photograph and see if he can find some beauty in them. He was quite keen to try this approach, take pictures of flowers and show them to his wife so that they could talk about them. It is experiences like these and knowing that we have made a difference to someone’s life, that make all our efforts worthwhile. 

During lockdown Art Doctors introduced weekly lockdown videos and Saturday morning Art Brunch, encouraging people to try out creative activity at home. We also collaborated with The Cultural Institute in Leeds for their Beyond Measure conference. You can watch some of our lockdown special videos on YouTube. 

As a result of our increased visibility through the work above, we have been approached to be part of a number of arts and health collaborations.  

If you would also like to collaborate with this fantastic project or if you have any queries, you can get in touch with Alison


Alison McIntyre and Liz Stirling are co-founders of The Art Doctors. 

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