We speak to Laura Jamieson, Creative Engagement Manager at LeftCoast, and local artist Gillian Wood, to find out how they turned a disused hospital building in Fleetwood into an exhibition space.

How it started

Back in March 2020, Gillian was working with us at LeftCoast as an artist-in-residence. In the context of the first national lockdown, and given her background working in costume on Hollywood films, Gillian set up a hub inviting local people to sew scrubs for the NHS. Soon enough she discovered the huge creative potential of the local community, which is what sparked the idea for the Inside Out exhibition at the disused Fleetwood Hospital.

Why Fleetwood Hospital?

We wanted a place with a bit of a contemporary art gallery feel.

- Gillian Wood

The LeftCoast team approached the CEO of the Fleetwood Hospital Trust, building on the relationship created by one of their previous artists-in-residence. Back then, it was a derelict building and the local council was planning to turn it into a community space. Gillian added:

At our first sight of the space, it very much had a factory feel which we loved straight away because we thought that exhibiting artists would see it more like a contemporary art gallery. That was the atmosphere we wanted to create there.

Although the space was in a rundown state and very dirty with rubble everywhere, it was also very beautiful; the light was perfect, the rooms were big and the team could choose what areas to use. This venue was also a good fit with the project’s aim: a hospital is where people get well and ‘Inside Out’ was also about wellbeing and how people find their way through a difficult time. It seemed to be a very good home for the artworks. Laura said:

We just wanted to plant a seed as well: if we can do this project in this space, then what can we do in other spaces around the town?

When people came to the hospital to bring in their creations, they would say “Wow, isn’t this amazing?” and “This is a great space!”. Many had a personal connection to the space because some of their family members had been treated there or had worked in the hospital when it was functional. Seeing the building in its current state really sparked people’s imagination in terms of the multiple possibilities of using it.

Working with the space

Thanks to the colour of the walls, painted bright blue, bright orange, and the natural light, the rooms selected for the exhibition had a very lively and upbeat atmosphere. This paint palette helped the team decide what floor to use and how to display the artwork. What made the space look like a modern gallery were the exposed pipes and concrete. Everyone was surprised at how amazing the space looked inside, they all loved it and enjoyed being in there. According to Laura:

It’s hard for a building that was used as a hospital not to have any connection to it, unlike a warehouse. There was something about it - people knowing it as a space that had helped the community at some point.

Curating the exhibition

Inside Out Fleetwood - Photo credit Claire Griffiths

Local artists invited Gillian in their homes to take their paintings or photographs off their walls to contribute to the exhibition.

Seeing the abundance of pieces made by the local community members we realised the importance of domestic creativity. That was the beauty of the exhibits - the fact that they were not made for a gallery but to make people’s own homes nicer places, to distract them through the day.

- Laura Jamieson

The team also used some of the items found in the hospital; they washed and hung used scrubs, they used nurses’ lockers as exhibition stands. Yet, they were careful not to exhibit certain other things, such as hospital beds, because of their emotional load, especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a tricky task to frame the exhibition around care and wellbeing rather than illness and grief.

Take a look at the Inside Out exhibition guide to see the artworks and learn more about the people who made them.

Overcoming access and safety challenges

At the start of our project, the building was a working site which meant that the team could access it only during certain time slots and days. Moreover, Covid-19 restrictions made them cancel their plans twice as people were not allowed to gather in a space indoors. The project was delayed by six months, giving artists time to produce more work and for coordinators to prepare in more detail.

Having the right knowledge and skills, the LeftCoast team were able to deal with the risk assessment of the venue and the public liability insurance, thus taking this burden off the community group’s shoulders. There were many plans and procedures in place, such as one-way systems and staggered entrances.

Because the hospital building hadn’t been used in a long time and it sits in a quiet area of Fleetwood, they had to signpost very clearly that things were happening inside and to grab people’s attention by filling the windows with posters. They also clearly communicated the accessibility of the venue and created a video of the exhibition as an alternative for those who could not navigate the physical space.

How it boosted people’s confidence

The project grew organically from the Scrub Hub which revealed the amazing creative things that local people had been doing during the lockdown and even before, but they were too shy to show. Because people didn’t have a certificate to validate that they were artists or that they had studied, they thought that “I’m not really an artist; it’s just what I do in my spare time.”

Inside Out exhibition picture by Claire Griffiths

Once the call for artwork launched, people came forward slowly. The exhibition grew as it was being installed; the more people heard about the initiative, the more they got involved. Inside Out artists also got very positive feedback from visitors which gave them a boost of confidence and they’re still creating now, thinking that they’d like to exhibit again in the future. Laura said:

From little stories of participants, I can see there’s definitely more self confidence than there was before the exhibition.

How it was received 

People of various ages and genders came to see the exhibition; a lot of families, young and old people alike. The artists invited their families and friends to visit, but some people travelled from as far as 15 miles away to see the artworks. They had heard about it through word-of-mouth, social media and via the local radio. Another factor that drew people in was intrigue. Some who were just passing by and some who knew the hospital because they had worked there decided to step inside and see what was going on. 

There was something for everybody to enjoy; some people preferred paintings, others liked knitted pieces more and so on. Yet, everyone acknowledged that they’d never realised that there was so much talent in their community. A really common comment was: “I never realised that there were so many people here that can create such work”. Many also said: “I make something too,” or “My sister makes something,” or “I’m part of a lacemaking group”. 

Working in partnership

We used the project to start conversations.

- Laura Jamieson

LeftCoast feeds into an art partnership which brings together organisations from across the town. Their approach was “do it by showing it”. The team started using the hospital as the place for partners to use for their regular meetings. They also collaborated with local cafes and public areas, putting signs and posters to spread the word about the project. An outer town outlet offered to use the hospital space for one of their workshops where people came to make and bring work. This generated a good opportunity to further advertise our project. 

Top tips

At first, there was a lot of physical work to do in order to clean the space; more than expected. 

The whole of the Left Coast came in, we all rolled up our sleeves, put our overalls on and spent days just cleaning. 

- Gillian Wood

Even at the point of displaying the artworks, they benefited from having Laura’s father on site to help us as a volunteer. Turning a building site into an exhibition space demanded a lot of effort. Laura’s first advice would be to get people with as many different skills as possible around you. Then, it’s important to develop good communication with everyone involved. It helps people get on board and stay committed to the project. 

What next

Inside Out exhibition - picture by Claire Griffiths

The plans for revamping the Fleetwood Hospital and turning it into a community hub are well underway. From the very start, the LeftCoast team thought of Fleetwood Hospital as a creative home for the local community to develop and showcase their talent. By its funding nature, the hub is developing in stages and there are plans to open a community café downstairs and more.

Many artists still keep in touch with each other and they communicate through a Facebook group. They need time, encouragement and guidance to strengthen their connections. Recently, artists took initiative to exhibit some of their works, being fully involved in the decision-making process. Members of the public also came forward, offering to help with administrative tasks and setting up. 

It’s about planting seeds to make it happen. 

- Laura Jamieson

Did you know?

LeftCoast and the creative community of Fleetwood were awarded for the ‘Inside Out’ exhibition, receiving the England Runner Up distinction at the 2021 Creative Lives Awards. Learn more