Typically, the best thing one can say about hospital art—usually benign posters of lakes, flowers, and landscapes—is that, if unremarkable, it makes a slightly better impression than the food. But in the past decade, original paintings, photographs, and installations by such contemporary artists as Jeff Koons, Mel Bochner, Joel Meyerowitz, Jason Middlebrook, Frank Stella, and the late Helen Levitt have cropped up in corridors, waiting areas, imaging suites, and patients’ rooms in more than a dozen public and private hospitals nationwide.
The institutions owe their impressive contemporary collections to the New York−based nonprofit RxArt, which works with administrators medical technicians, doctors, and nurses at a handful of hospitals each year to commission art tailored to their patient populations. Through a combination of grants and private donations, the organization raises money to purchase the commissions—which cost between $25,000 and $250,000—that it lends to hospitals on a long-term basis, at no charge. These loans, explains RxArt’s president and founder, Diane Brown, are de facto permanent installations. “We never intend to take art out. We only take it out if a hospital asks us to remove something.”
Upcoming projects include James Welling’s series of bold-colored photographs of the Philip Johnson Glass House, a National Trust Historic Site—the artist shot them, during the course of different seasons, through colored filters—bound for Emory University Hospital in Atlanta; a 39-by-11 foot wall featuring colorful animals and whimsical creatures by the multimedia artist Trenton Doyle Hancock (much like his “Mounds” series) at the entrance to the imaging suite at the Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, in Houston, Texas; and Yoshimoto Nara’s prints and wallpaper for the children’s psychiatric unit at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. (Nara, who lives just north of Tokyo, has postponed preliminary drawings due to the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan.)
In September, RxArt will publish Between the Lines: Vol. 3, a coloring book that features black-and-white line drawings by some fifty artists, among them Urs Fischer, April Gornik, Wangechi Mutu, Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Andrea Zittel. This third volume in a series has a print run of twenty-five thousand and includes stickers by Rob Pruitt and Hancock; it will be distributed free to pediatric units across the country. Initially, the plan “was to give it to kids in hospitals,” says Brown. But teenagers—and in some cases, young people up to age twenty-one—are also relegated to pediatric units. So RxArt asked artists to create drawings that aren’t specifically geared to children but that reflect the style of work they typically make. “Teenagers are not happy to be with little kids. We wanted them to get this coloring book and not be offended,” she explains. “If you don’t want to color, who cares? You will see fifty drawings by incredible artists.” (Copies will also be available for purchase at RxArt.net.)
"We get very close to the patients and their families and they have to feel well cared for by us. I think the murals and the prints do help to convey that."
– Joan Sorich
Brown, who has been active in the field of contemporary art for nearly three decades—she ran her own gallery, first in Washington, D.C., from 1976 to 1982, and then in New York City from 1983 to 1992—conceived the idea of RxArt about a decade ago, after a frightening CAT scan. “The staff at the hospital were humorless, cold, really miserable, and the room was cold and humorless,” she recalls. “I was really panicked and wanted to get out of there. But I was on a gurney with an IV in my arm, so I wasn’t going anywhere. The only thing I could do to handle the fear was to imagine a painting I could get lost in. I spontaneously imagined a Matthew Ritchie painting”—a made-up creation that drew upon Ritchie’s graphic vocabulary and mythical characters from The New Place and Proposition Player, works that span painting, drawing, and the Internet to tell the story of the history of the universe. “I was so totally engrossed in this imagined work that I really forgot about the test. And then—it was over! I felt like I wasn’t even there.” She left the hospital inspired to create a more concrete version of that experience for others—a mission that fit perfectly with her artworld background—and, in 2000, incorporated RxArt
But Brown “wasn’t willing to put in landscapes of trees and ponds.” To take people out of the hospital for a few moments, “the only way to engage them sufficiently is to give them something that’s going to challenge them in some way,” she explains. “Not to frighten them, not to turn them off, but to give them something a little unfamiliar to look at. If patients see something that’s so expected, they will see right past it.”
At the same time, because the artworks are chosen specifically for each patient population, they are integral to their units. “I can’t envision the unit without them,” says Joan Sorich, the nurse manager of the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital, of Jason Middlebrook’s Traveling Seeds series (2007), for which the artist painted murals showing vibrant-colored, almost wild-looking seeds, plants, and flowers. Recently, framed prints from the series went up in the corridors. “They’re so much of what the unit is about in terms of life, and the cycle of life: One marrow going into another person. They’re so much a part of our identity,” she says. “We get very close to the patients and their families, and they have to feel well cared for by us. I think the murals and the prints do help to convey that. I’m so proud of that, because it’s a hard thing to do when you have very sick people.” Patients in her ward, whom she describes as “completely bare, completely vulnerable,” stay in the hospital for periods ranging from two weeks to more than two months. “It’s not just blood counts that are recovering,” says Sorich, “it’s a person.”
When Brown launched RxArt, she thought it would be “a snap” to install high-quality art in hospitals. “I couldn’t imagine them not wanting me and my art,” she says. It hasn’t always been easy. One hospital sat on the contract for six months because the C.E.O. distrusted the agreement, which cost the institution nothing. During another early project, Brown encountered hostility from the nurses, who hadn’t been included in the art-selection process. Today, “staff is one of the most important parts of any project,” she says. That includes granting them veto power on artworks they believe are unsuitable and asking them to sign off on preliminary drawings. Partly as a result, “now the hospitals come to us,” says Brown. “The nurses are like my docents.”
"Healing is much more holistic than just pills, machines, or shots. The ancient Greeks knew this, but we somehow lost track: You've got to heal the spirit as well as the body."
– Diane Brown
Still, the challenges of installing artwork in hospitals are myriad. The multimedia artist Rob Pruitt’s spangle pandas, installed in 2008 in the Kay Kafe cafeteria at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, in Memphis, required much finagling to find a suitably flashy, nontoxic material that children couldn’t pull off of the canvas (their compromised immune systems cannot abide free-floating glitter). Similarly, for his upcoming Houston, Texas, installation, Hancock would like to use synthetic fur to create a three-dimensional “Mound”—provided an entirely fire-retardant and germ—resistant material can be found. Other projects require multiple rounds of the approval process to select an artist, as was the case at the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System hospital, which sees large numbers of patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. Recently, the VA hospital staff and veterans alike agreed on Malcolm Morley’s vintage—inspired, playful paintings of World War II−era fighter planes, which will be installed in a waiting room there next year.
Despite the challenges, Brown counts nearly two-dozen projects on her growing list, which includes eight that she hopes to see completed this year. “Healing is much more holistic than just pills, machines, or shots,” says Brown. “The ancient Greeks knew this, but we somehow lost track: You’ve got to heal the spirit as well as the body.”
Rachel Somerstein has written about art, culture, and urbanism for ARTnews, Art and Auction, Architectural Record, and Wired. As a staff writer at Next American City, she’s covered the experiences of Hurricane Katrina evacuees in Houston, Texas, and the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on upstate New York.
All photographs courtesy of RxArt