Royal Festival Hall is currently home to Free, the Koestler Trust’s “annual national showcase of arts by prisoners, offenders on community sentences, secure psychiatric patients and immigration detainees” which is celebrating its 50th year.
The exhibition is vast, with art across a plethora of mediums from paintings, sculpture, collage, drawing and traditional crafts to film and animation, instrumental compositions and spoken word. This year, curator Sarah Lucas has selected close to 200 pieces from the record 8000 submissions across 58 art forms. Many of the pieces are thought-provoking, poignant and, at times, deeply personal. Most strikingly, the skill and technique employed in many of the pieces is astounding. I found myself wandering around the exhibition a few times to revisit particular artworks and to fully experience the volume of talent which shone from the stark walls of the exhibition room.
On entering the exhibition room ‘Visitor’s Cards’ are available which encourage visitors to give comments and feedback on the pieces which they particularly like, which are to be passed on anonymously to the artist. This gives an incredibly personal connection between the artist and viewer, ensuring that the artists know of the impact of their art and that their work has been appreciated. The artworks which receive the most public votes are awarded a Koestler Award which are said to be “motivational for offenders”. Successful applicants of the award receive £150, art materials and a year of mentoring from a Koestler mentor.
…the use of art in prison…
Most of the artwork on show at the exhibition is for sale – although the majority had been sold when I visited last weekend. Koestler says that “sales help to motivate entrants to positive achievement, showing them that their skills can have real value.” Proceeds from sales are divided between the artist, Victim Support and the Koestler Trust (50%, 25% and 25% respectively).
The exhibition can provoke debate on the use of art in prison and other such establishments but Koestler argue that there is “growing evidence of the impact of the arts in offenders’ lives” and research has discovered that “art projects can halve the expected rate of re-offending”. In the accompanying exhibition brochure, many of the artists comment on the positive effect of self-expression, self-exploration and building self-worth through art.
…rewarded with powerful and thought-provoking art…
But it isn’t simply the artists who benefit from this exhibition. Visitors are rewarded with powerful and thought-provoking art that can challenge preconceptions and powerfully demonstrate what can be achieved through art.