There's nothing fun about hospitals. That is, until RxArt brought vivid, contemporary fine art into the mix, amid hopes of boosting spirits and spreading cheer. The whimsy is infectious. “No animals allowed.” That’s what hospital rules usually say, But today, patients and survivors may find William Wegman’s famed Weimaraners, Jeff Koon’s monkeys, and Rob Pruitt’s sequined pandas giving proof that rules are made to be bent. These pieces of contemporary art, among others, grace the walls, ceilings, and atria of medical centers and children's hospitals far and wide. This is all thanks to RxArt, a New York based non-profit founded by philanthropists and art dealer Diane Brown. For 10 years the organization has been matching artists and their museum-quality work to places most of us don’t ever want to go--bone marrow transplant units, children’s radiology wings, cancer centers, hospital cafeterias, and abuse-counseling wards. Commissioning and installing this vivid, contemporary artworks is in RxArt’s DNA--it’s plan to transform the experience of being in a health care environment into something better. Memorable, even: not sterile, not generic--and certainly not gloomy. To date, hundreds of thousands of patients and their families and their families have been treated to art-with-a-heart that aims to soothe and inspire in difficult times.
A PICASSO PRESCRIPTION As far back as Florence Nightengale (i.e. Even before scrubs), people have been angling to uncover the healing qualities of light, color, and shape. More recently, visual art in health care environments has received a thumbs-up from the likes of the Royal Society of Medicine, which reported in 2006 that “the arts offer major opportunities in the deliver of better health, well-being, and improved experience for patients, service users, and staff.” More research exploring the benefits of art in medical settings--from lowering blood pressure to reducing the length of stays--is under way. Brown, founder and president of the RxArt movement, comes at this scene from a more personal place: she was scared senseless by the CT scan machine. “Literally, I was very, very afraid of having to lie still with an IV in my arm and go through this machine. I panicked and really just wanted to get out of that room,” she says. “The only way I could get out was with my imagination. So I started thinking about a Matthew Richie painting on the wall and maybe moving it over the ceiling.” The next thing Brown knew, the CT scan was over and an idea was born: “I knew I had to do this for others. Help them get away for awhile. With art.” Through private donations and grants, the former gallery owner created an organization that provides art free to hospitals. Brown works directly with an impressive lineup of artist--from Wolfgang Tillmans and Frank Stella to Ryan McGinness and Terry Richardson. It was Richardson who recently helped transform the adolescent behavioral health floors at Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn with inspiring photos of Olympic athletes and children flashing the thumbs-up. “Hopefully, they will put a smile on their faces,” Richardson has said.
FROM SICKNESS TO SMILES, AND HOPE Smiles, strength, inspiration, hope, distraction--it doesn’t much matter which emotions the artworks elicit. Brown says what counts most is that the patient, or visitor is engaged with art and moved away from the realities, often unpleasant, of their treatment, or stay in the facility. “We can’t fix health care, but we can mend the spirit,” she says. With 18 installations across the country--and Between the Lines, a coloring book of drawings by contemporary artists that is given to patients--RxArt has done just that. Since the inaugural installation at Rockefeller University Hospital in New York debuted just over 10 years ago, a nurse says, “The artwork has made the hospital attractive and made the patients feel respected, healthier, and good about themselves.” A patient says, “Joel Meyerowitz’s work was the first thing I noticed on the first day of my stay. For me this work was a sign of transformation, a walk into light, hope, healing, relief, and wonderful sense of calm.”
Actor/activist Marlo Thomas adds her praise. “When my father founded St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, he envisioned a place of pioneering research unparalleled medical care, comfort, and hope,” says Thomas, who is the nations outreach director for the hospital. “RxArt’s contribution of original art works by Rob Pruitt and Will Cotton expand this spirit of community at St. Jude by creating a unique environment of joy and creativity for the children and their families. RxArt plays an important role in fulfilling St. Jude’s commitment to excellence and innovation, not only in our medical care, but in the quality of the lives of our children.” For Brown and the artist, “Our mission is still to inspire hope and to promote healing. It’s a remarkable privilege to be allowed to work with these hospitals. It’s been amazing for all of us to think that our work has such a profound impact on someone’s life.”