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Art in the stairwell

Peter Breen from Jugglers Art Space reflects on the development of the Stairwell Project and its impact on the wellbeing of patients, visitors and staff at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital….

The Stairwell Project was conceived during a short contract I had in the Medical Imaging Department [Radiography] of the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH) in 2015. The main stairwell in the hospital is the primary access for staff and patients who choose not to use the lifts when they are accessing the body of the hospital. It became my habit to take the occasional lunch breaks in the stairwell by walking up to level 9. It was during those walks that the idea arrived of installing live music into that acoustically wonderful resonant space. 

The Stairwell Project is based on evidence that live music and art is an essential element in the healing process and general wellbeing of patients, staff and public in hospitals and medical centres. My connections to Queensland Conservatorium musicians – graduates, students and staff who performed at the regular Jugglers Art Space (Jugglers)  Paint it Red gigs, became the source for performers for The Stairwell Project. The Hush Foundation at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, academic research and my own subjective experience of the affect of different music genres on wellbeing were foundational in the development of the idea. The RBWH Executive responded with guarded but strong support, giving the project broad access to the hospital spaces and suggesting new options, including inviting us to perform in the oncology outpatient waiting room. 


We began the project with decibel tests in the stairwell and assessing the suitability of instrument and music styles. I quickly became the curator of a very enthusiastic team of musicians who performed up to five mornings each week in the stairwell, the main foyer, oncology outpatients, cafes and then at various RBWH corporate functions. In the first year of the project, artists generously volunteered their time and skills to the project. A successful campaign using crowdfunding platform Pozible in 2016 by Jugglers and support through the RBWH ensured the value of artists and musicians' contributions was recognised through payment for their work.

All performances were very well received but the harpists and the jazz quartet at the hospital entrance were hard to beat. The musicianship of the team was exceptional, including such luminaries as Harpist Donald Hall and RBWH employee and cancer survivor Ewan McKenzie.  

At the busiest time of the project we had 30 musicians who were available to perform and Conservatorium graduate Lachlan Hawkins planned the weekly schedules. In November 2015, visual artists Dr Kay Lawrence and Dr Sarah Manser were invited to install a series of drawings in the stairwell. Dr Bill Platz also provided a design sketch for re-imagining the stairwell’s walls in mid 2016.


Visual artist at work in the Stairwell


The effect on everyone, including all the musicians, has been more than positive. One musician wrote about the project as her major theme for her Honours Thesis. Affirming commentary, donations of coins, spontaneous dancing and smiles were normal from patients, the general public and staff. 

On one particular occasion a man approached and asked us if we could play something upbeat, as his wife was in the hospital and was very ill. He was noticeably distressed. We played the jazz standard “All of Me”. The man closed his eyes, started swaying with the music and it seemed as though he had transported to another place. As the song ended some of his family members arrived and the man broke down in tears and so did we. He was so appreciative just to have one bright spot in what was a very difficult time. He gave us all a big hug and then went inside. It was at that moment which I realised the power and positive effect that this initiative can have. Andrew Saragossi (B.Mus., LLB)

Listened to this when dad was in hospital. It was amazing. It was calming, uplifting, simply amazing. Facebook comment.

There have been a couple of mornings that I have come in dragging my feet and feeling it was all too much, then hearing the saxophone playing out the front I’ve been cheered up and inspired to get on with my job. Staff member at the Royal Brisbane Hospital 


The two-year trial of the project has now finished and we have taken leave from all performances since May 2017 whilst we look at the future of the program. Documenting the outcomes of the project and funding commitment remain a challenge. To build on the initial positive feedback to the project and demonstrate the importance of programs such as this, we have been meeting with Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre to develop research demonstrating the qualitative effects on staff, patients and the public from the project. We are also coordinating an academic outreach program in collaboration with the Queensland Conservatorium’s Chamber Department along with Dr Meta Weiss. 

More information about the Stairwell Project can be found on the project’s website.


Peter BreenPeter Breen is the co-founder and current Chair / Director of Jugglers Art Space Inc. Peter has been the leader and facilitator of Jugglers as part of a remarkable team that over the past 18 years has been carving out its own niche around a range of values and activities that make it a significant and important community arts organisation in Brisbane.

Peter's underlying ideas and values that keep him motivated in his leadership and oversight are spiritual and cultural inquiry; creativity as being basic to humanity; welcome; social justice; and community as being the best crucible in which these  flourish.

For Peter, it continues to be a rich experience full of surprise, growth, health and challenge.





Feature image: Lachlan Hawkins, handpan performance in the stairwell, RBWH. [Stairwell Project Administrator]. Photo: Aaron Veryard of ASV Photographics

Peter Breen
Stairwell Project


Post script: Since writing this post, Peter Breen [Curator] and Lachlan Hawkins [Administrator] reported that they have secured the same core group of musicians for further performances under the same pro bono arrangement at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital. The program will occur between 14 August and 14 November 2017.