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CULTURE: Dudley art scene healthy; Terry Grimley looks at the public art programme associated with Dudley's new pounds 160 million hospital.

Byline: Terry Grimley

The opening of the pounds 106 million Wales Millennium Centre was national news a couple of weeks ago, but where in the West Midlands can you see a new pounds 160 million development by the same architects?

The answer is Russell's Hall Hospital in Dudley. A mixture of new-build and re-build designed by Percy Thomas Partnership, this massive healthcare fortress, which has doubled the size of the existing hospital on the site, is now open to the public but not yet fully up and running, Its all-over finish in white plastic-coated panels does tend to call Lego bricks to mind - not usually regarded as a flattering comparison. A more prestigious one might be American architect Richard Meier's various white international art palaces, such as his applied art museum in Frankfurt.

There the whiteness provides a neutral setting for a display of gorgeous objects from a variety of cultures, so at Russell's Hall the public art programme takes on an important function to help avert snowblindness and help to create a warm and welcoming environment.

Only a modest pounds 50,000 for art was included in the development budget. As project manager Paul Oxley puts it: 'We can't tell people we haven't got an A&E department because we spent pounds 2 million on art.'

However, the hospital trust put in a further pounds 70,000 and a bid for pounds 100,000 to the Arts Lottery netted pounds 57,500.

Steve Field, the long-serving Dudley town artist - his commissioning work can be seen all along the Dudley South by-pass on the way to Russell's Hall - was employed as consultant to develop the art programme, and a committee of interested people from the hospital staff was assembled to overlook it. Some ingenuity was used to squeeze the most out of limited funds.

'We have tried to make the best use of it and amplify it,' says Steve Field. 'Even the little traffic barriers in front of the hospital we've tried to turn into an art commission, rather than just being standard fencing, for more or less the same money.

'The seats were fabricated in Birmingham but the designer, Pete Whitehouse, lives in Dudley. There was pounds 2,000 in the budget for the seats - pounds 500 each - so we said let's supplement that with pounds 3,000. A standard fence would have been pounds 11,500, so with pounds 2,500 extra it was pounds 14,000.'

The building has been designed with a series of enclosed courtyards which have been attractively planted as gardens by FIRA, the landscape designers based in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter who were also responsible for the Midland Metro planting.

One of these courtyards has provided a new home for the sculpture of a flock of birds by Gerda Rubinstein which was originally installed at the Merry Hill Shopping Centre but was made homeless by a recent refurbishment.

However, the star feature, to be found in another courtyard, is a piece by internationally renowned landscape artist Chris Drury. Working with a team of assistants over six weeks during October and November, he has used fragments of slate to simulate a rushing stream, complete with eddies and even whirlpools as it rushes around boulders, all integrated with FIRA's planting.

'It was inspired by the flow of blood in the heart, so it has a medical connection,' explains Steve Field. 'It's also quite functional because the whirlpools function as soakaways.'

To see a second piece by Drury, you have to go upstairs. There you can look down on a flat roof which was originally covered in brown stone chippings, where Drury has created a huge ground-drawing based on staff fingerprints.

'To create the art what he's done is take ten tonnes of brown gravel off, bucket by bucket, to create trenches in the fingerprint patterns, then filled those trenches with white marble,' says Steve Field. 'It's a very simple kind of ground drawing in stones that aren't fixed.'

Other elements in the programme include a mosaic by Ilona Bryan at the maternity department entrance and a mobile by Jan Blake featuring fabric printed with designs based on staff autographs.

There is a large photo-mural of glass cones in Brierley Hill, chosen by staff from invited submissons from a local photographic society. Ironically, the photographer first saw his work in-situ when he arrived for treatment to an injured leg.

The hospital also has an artistin-residence, Jo Naden, who is putting on a series of informal events in public spaces.

'I've been here here since September, and we've had a very positive response, both from the public and the people who work here,' she said. 'We've had comedians and storytellers, and the little things in the corridor have gone down very well.'

One which proved highly successful was an 'apple day' at which fruit-grower and storyteller Paul Hand talked about the mysteries of various different varieties, including the local Tettenhall Pear. He will be coming back again at Christmas.

'People learn from it, find out something new, and it takes their minds off what they're here for,' says Jo Naden.

There are plans to continue developing the art programe, and there is plenty of potential. The renal unit is planing to set up a scheme with local schools and colleges to provide temporary exhibitions, and the walls of the cafeteria currently look a bit spartan. 'From our point of view, we're saying we've started out with quite a modest amount of money, but look what we've done so far,' says Paul Oxley.

'We think we've been unique in that we're trying to do create a mixture of works that involve people using the hospital. We're very much involved with creating a relaxing environment.

'People react very well. At the main entrance you've got the 'wow' factor - people are just impressed in terms of space and light.'


Landscape artist Chris Drury's fingerprint roof drawing under construction
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 13, 2004
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