Image shown: Justine Foster.

Image shown: Justine Foster.

Justine Foster

Justine Foster manages the Arts for Health Partnership Programme in West Cork, an arts programme for older people in healthcare settings. She looks back on spring 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic uprooted the programme’s long-held infrastructure and new pathways were needed to connect with participants and to support relationships with artists and healthcare partners.

Roots were laid bare and fragilities exposed as our usual way of connecting broke down. New pathways needed building at each level: the partnership, the artists, the healthcare professionals and the participants.

Diary entry 20th March 2020: ‘So much change around the world – every day, every minute’. It is now almost one whole year since our lives changed dramatically and irrevocably. While the government has designated Levels 1 to 5 as a framework to lean on and we have embraced the digital world for work and play, we continue to be challenged by the ongoing change and uncertainty.

I cast my mind back to Ireland’s first lockdown when people were sent home, gallery doors closed and hospital visits ceased, as the danger of personal contact slowly dawned on the world. Staff and artists at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre all went, as instructed, to the safety of their homes while our colleagues and friends in the HSE transformed into their new role as frontline workers. A division in the workforces that remains in place now.

A call to arms came via email to my new home office from a colleague in the HSE: ​‘As part of our emergency response we are reaching out to all partners to ask them to consider what they can do within their own disciplines/practices… People in your network may be caught up in caring at home or been redeployed in the service, but there may be a few who have the opportunity to develop generative interventions that encourage solidarity and resilience.

Energised by adrenalin, I felt a strong impulse to respond. As part of the arts sector, we needed to move up a gear, re-imagine and find new pathways for connecting with participants and audiences. The importance of accessing arts and creativity as a human need rose to the surface.

Since 2002 I have managed an Arts for Health Partnership Programme based in West Cork that provides an arts programme for older people in healthcare settings. The Programme takes place in day care and residential nursing units across the geographically widespread rural location of West Cork. The delivery of the programme is through a multidisciplinary team of artists who have developed their professional expertise through mentorship, training, and practice over several years and have established close, professional working relationships with the staff of each care setting. The partnership of local authority, education and health organisations working together provides the cornerstone to all that is centrally managed from an arts venue – described HERE in an animation we made several years ago.

In the animation, a tree is used as a symbol to visually describe the make-up of our programme, with the partners as roots holding firm, the artists and healthcare workers as the branches reaching out and participants as leaves, bearing regular new growth.

This hard-earned infrastructure was hit by the impact of the pandemic. Eleven healthcare settings became five: one had a Covid outbreak and was under too much pressure to consider the arts programme, five day care centres were closed, and staff were redeployed for swabbing. Of the five remaining, only three had internet connection beyond the office.

Roots were laid bare and fragilities exposed as our usual way of connecting broke down. New pathways needed building at each level: the partnership, the artists, the healthcare professionals and the participants. At the peak of my concerns were the isolation of our older participants, the stress of our healthcare colleagues and the welfare of our artists.

To reconnect, I initiated APRIL 2020, a project that gave me the opportunity to speak with each person and work with them to creatively record experiences as they happened. Individuals from the community directly connected with Uillinn and the Arts for Health Programme were invited to explore their connections and detachments and their personal and professional lived experiences during this particularly challenging time. Artists, participants, staff and colleagues each recorded one day during the month of April in 2020. This record took many forms, each true to the moment experienced.

The Directors of Nursing in the care settings were amazed that Arts for Health was still around and were keen early on for something to happen. They feared more the impact of isolation for the residents than the additional workload that fell upon them in helping us to deliver. I witnessed nurses’ incredible responses to the Covid crisis, the caring skills at the heart of their work.

Arts for Health partners came to our aid not only in their funding flexibility but in pooling resources and generously sharing their newly learnt experiences. Cork ETB gave us tablets and tech tools for community hospitals. They offered technology training for healthcare workers. They offered me encouragement to continue.

I relayed the call to arms to our artists team and in their replies, they excelled themselves. Their ability to invent, imagine, create, connect came to the fore. The first to come back to me with a plan was Tess Leak who reimagined her Museum of Song as a Postal Project. Others soon followed: In the Music Room, a pre-recorded series from Justin Grounds, and Time in Our Lives from Sarah Ruttle, which combined postal, one-to-one skype and pre-record elements. Singer-songwriter Liz Clark confidently went straight out to livestream her workshops and performances, working with us to build what is now the most important infrastructure for delivering each week into the hospital day rooms.

While I was supporting the artists, my peers across the country in Arts and Health Coordinators Ireland (AHCI) were supporting me, meeting each week to share challenges and ideas. This has been so important in helping me move from being responsive to thinking about the long term, as the adrenalin lowered and I needed time to reflect on what had been learned.

While circumstances are still constantly evolving, we have found a pattern and methods of remote delivery that work. It fell upon our good relationships and trust developed over time to make this work happen in a new way and our collective experience within the programme to overcome the challenges of making remote working meaningful.

The Arts and Health Coordinator is the glue keeping the programme together and the people connected. This has meant putting the building blocks of safety and finance in place to allow for creative freedom within, and ensuring care of the artist: encouraging invention, giving space to imagine, creating a culture of positivity and possibility, troubleshooting, all while keeping an eye on what might be around the corner.

I’m glad to have my peers and colleagues alongside me as it might be just as challenging when it is no longer a state of emergency but a new state of being.


Regarding the Arts for Health programme, our sense is of the value of the connection with the outside world, the enjoyment of art in various forms despite the physical distancing, the opportunity to connect with our emotions in a guided, safe process, at a time when we are almost afraid to do so.

It also brought enjoyment and purpose to staff’s day to day difficult days.

Margo Daly, CNM2, St. Joseph’s Unit, Care of the Elderly, Bantry General Hospital

Wonderful work and such a support to both the Residents and Staff, without the Arts for Health Programme we would have been very lonely. Instead, time is flying by and we still have entertainment and support from you all.

Roisin Walsh, A/Director of Nursing, Schull Community Hospital


Justine Foster spent several years working as a visual artist in a public and community context in UK and Ireland after graduating from Chelsea College of Art and Design (London, UK). In her current position as Programme Manager with Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre she has developed numerous projects with an emphasis on forging local, regional, and national strategic partnerships. In 2005, she initiated an Arts for Health Partnership Programme with the HSE, Cork Education & Training Board and Cork County Council. In 2016, she authored Uillinn’s first Public Engagement Strategy. Justine is Chairperson of Arts and Health Coordinators Ireland (AHCI).


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