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State of the Art: Sophie Leighton


8th Apr 2024 Art & Theatre

4 min read

State of the Art: Sophie Leighton
Sophie Leighton is the director of Bethlem Gallery, an art gallery that is set within Bethlem Royal Hospital, the world’s oldest psychiatric institution
Reader's Digest: Can you tell us about your background and your role at Bethlem Gallery?
Sophie Leighton: My background is as a traditional curator. I trained in art history and I was a curator at the V&A and then at the Freud Museum. I was interested in the role at Bethlem Gallery because I wanted to actually work more with people and have a more socially engaged practice. Some of the artists here have a lot to say, so I like the idea of supporting that work and trying to make a positive change.
RD: How did the gallery come to be part of Bethlem Royal Hospital?
SL: The Bethlem site has loads of different units. Some of them are national units, like the national autism unit, because [South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust] has the widest range of mental health services in the UK. Alongside the units, the site has an amazing art room which is run by the occupational therapy department. People can get referred to it, so it’s like a clinical service that they book into every week.
"The point of it was to give people an experience of being artists and an identity that’s not just 'patient'"
The art technicians working in that service wanted a space to display the work so they set up a room as an exhibition space, and then it grew into a separate organisation. The point of it was to create a professional space to display artwork, to give people an experience of being artists and an identity that’s not just “patient”. Now we’re in an old 1920s building that was the old admin block. We have the Museum of the Mind upstairs which is about the history of mental health care, and downstairs we have the gallery.
RD: What kind of artists work with the gallery?
SL: We work with artists with lived experience of mental illness and most are connected to the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. Lots of them are on-site longterm, so we build up a relationship with them. Others might have been through the hospital when they were younger and then become professional artists so we stay in touch and work with them in different ways.
We also work with artists at different levels of development. We have art groups where people just come to draw to take their mind off stuff who have never really drawn before, and then we work with artists who have done art degrees and get commissioned internationally, so it’s a huge range.
We also worked with [Turner Prize nominee] Mark Titchner on some artworks for the site, which were placards with questions about mental health and the capacity to make decisions about your own future. Someone graffitied “RIP Seni” on one of the slogans, and that led to a documentary called RIP Seni. [In 2010, Olaseni Lewis was killed by the police onsite after being restrained by up to 11 policemen while seeking help at the hospital during his first psychotic episode.] The documentary looks at his story and the role of the artwork in telling it, and hears from a lot of campaigners who are campaigning to change the use of restraint and police involvement in mental health care. 
RD: What is the relationship between art and mental health?
SL: Sue Morgan [whose exhibition is on at the gallery until April 27, 2024] feels compelled to talk about mental health when she talks about art because her practice is linked to her diagnosis. She had a career as a lawyer and she started making when she became unwell. For her, it’s a way of getting whatever is in her head out on paper, and she says it calms her down and makes her feel better.
"We do also problematise the idea that art is always good for you at all times"
But as a gallery we do also problematise the idea that art is always good for you at all times. We work with artists who feel compelled to make work, and their work is amazing but sometimes it’s not good for their health.
However, the importance of the gallery really is that it gives people a way to get off the ward and into a non-clinical space, to stop being a patient and to just be in a regular gallery. We’re in these amazing grounds, 265 acres of meadows and stuff, so people who are usually on the ward can come with a family member and visit the gallery and walk around the grounds.
RD: What events are coming up at the gallery?
SL: Sue Morgan had her first exhibition with the gallery in 2001, and we’re currently doing a retrospective of her life’s work. She’s been incredibly productive in the last few years. We let her curate everything, even down to the wall colour. A lot of her works are from her time in hospital where she literally captured whatever came into her head. Some of them relate to her psychotic episodes and hallucinations. She draws with really intricate detail and explores big, intellectual and philosophical questions about who we are.
Jigsaw by Sue Morgan, 2014
We also have an exhibition coming up in summer (May 8–July 14, 2024) which is really focused on music. We’re working with lots of patients and people connected to the gallery on writing lyrics and collecting soundscapes of the hospital grounds. We’re going to record that and make a vinyl album, and then [performance artist] Taxi Driver is going to transform the gallery into a Nineties-style record shop. 
You can visit Sue Morgan’s exhibition "Planet209 Revisited” until April 27, 2024, at Bethlem Gallery in Beckenham, London. For more information visit www.BethlemGallery.com
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