For the most part art in hospitals is an afterthought, if anyone even gives it a thought at all. Motivational posters and kitschy bucolic scenes of anthropomorphized wild animals seem to be the standard. This does not appear to be the result of any kind of study that has proven such things enhance the healing process, rather it seems the consequence of institutions with no budget for anything better and willing to take what they can get. Fortunately this epidemic of cheesy décor is being attended to by RxArt, whose mission is to promote healing and inspire hope in patients, families, and staff through contemporary art.
The germinal concept for RxArt came to its founder, Diane Brown, as she laid on a stiff hospital bed, her nerves wracked with anticipation and fear of a forthcoming diagnosis. She was on the verge of a panic attack and the bare white ceiling was not helping. After a few moments she decided to close her eyes and imagine one of her favorite paintings by Matthew Ritchie in all its wonderful complexity. Soon she was calm and when it came time for the doctor’s report, Brown was no longer fearful. In fact, she now had something she badly wanted to do.
Brown wasn’t merely interested in putting museum quality artwork in hospitals. She wanted the artists to be paid fairly for their work and for the hospitals to not have to pay a dime. Many thought it would be impossible or that such a plan was at best highly unlikely, but less than two years elapsed between the inspiration and the first project, which was installed at Rockefeller University Hospital in 2002. It is tremendous. Work by Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson, Helen Levitt, Jessica Stockholder, and Wolfgang Tillmans (to name only a few) adorn the hallways, patient rooms, and treatment rooms. An original mixed media work by Tim Rollins and KOS hangs across from one of Mel Bochner’s monoprints in the waiting area. Unsurprisingly, the response has been massively positive. Contemporary art, it turns out, is not at all out of place amongst biohazard containers, stethoscopes, and sanitation stations.
Ryan McGinley, in Kings County Hospital; Courtesy of Rx Art.
I visited four hospitals in the metropolitan New York area, including Rockefeller, and no two projects were similar or obvious. For instance, who would think that prints by Terry Richardson or Ryan McGinley would be appropriate for Pediatric and Adolescent Psychiatric Units? Brown did, and they are. In the pediatric wing half a dozen 11x14-inch photographs of children giving the classic “thumbs up” line the hallway. Carlos Rodriguez, Director of Therapeutic Rehabilitation Services, pointed out that the children relate to Richardson’s images more so than to the other posters on the walls. They are color photographs of kids their age. It’s a medium they’re familiar with, he said, and the thumbs-up is a symbol they understand.
In the adolescent unit colorful pictures of ski jumpers, an ice skater, and a swimmer hang on the walls. Selected from McGinley’s series of Olympians, the images are high action. Mr. Rodriguez noted that the photographs not only do a better job of conveying ideas of courage and personal bravery than the motivational posters, they also encourage the patients to be more physically active in their down time, to play in the real world rather than sit in front of a television playing video games.
When I spoke with Ms. Brown about how she funds these projects, she explained that each effort was a bit different. In many circumstances RxArt receives donations and grants that help, but in certain circumstances the support is more personal. The beautiful mural in the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at Mount Sinai Medical Center by Jason Middlebrook is an example of this latter type of funding. Titled Traveling Seeds (2006), the mural depicts plants native to the region releasing their seeds. Symbolic of nature’s cycles and the transference of life, it was largely sponsored by Mollie and Robert Myers after Robert’s life was saved by a bone marrow transplant in that very unit. The husband and wife were so grateful that they felt inspired to do something to express their gratitude beyond making a financial contribution to the hospital. They approached Brown who showed them a number of artists whose work they might like and after a few rounds of deliberation Traveling Seeds was commissioned.
Mary Temple, West Wall, North Light (green), 2007, Hassenfeld Children's Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders; Courtesy of Rx Art.
The last hospital I visited was the most sobering. I sat for only a few moments in the consultation room of the Hassenfeld Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders. The painting I was looking at, West Wall, North Light (2007), by Mary Temple, calmed me. In trompe l’oeil fashion, Temple portrayed the silhouettes of plants and leaves in a lit window, as if the painting captured the shadow and light coming through the room’s only window. This is where doctors tell hard truths to young families, I thought, as a cart rolled by in the hallway. The simplicity and subtlety of Temple’s painting seemed as if it would function as a kind of visual balm. Not only is it a soft and lovely work, West Wall, North Light is far more sensitive to the function of the space than the big, bright and shiny cartoon of a grinning Peter Pan in the hallway.
When I asked Ms. Brown about how the artists have responded to her ideas about art in hospitals she gave a smile. “They love it,” she said, “and they have been very generous and kind.” She has been working on a new project with Dan Colen, who insisted that his work go to a hospital that serves low-income patients. Soon, in the pediatric outpatient unit at King’s County Hospital, there will be children crawling all over Colen’s sculptures of boulder-sized M&Ms. Brown’s efforts are certainly not overlooked by the hospital staff. After all, these are their walls too. “We feel very lucky to have these works,” Mr. Rodriguez said, “it’s a real privilege.”
(Image on top: Jason Middlebrook, Traveling Seeds, 2007, in Mt. Sinai Hospital; Courtesy of Rx Art.)