When was the last time you walked into a hospital and thought to yourself, this place is beautiful and inspirational?
“Our mission is to take people out of the hospital, to take their minds off illness,” says Brown, 58. “And our mission is also to educate people about contemporary art.”
Brown is sitting under a staircase at the NYU Child Study Center on First Ave. in Manhattan. On the walls surrounding her, and rising two stories above, are dozens of brightly colored circles. Within each is a stenciled graphic created by Ryan McGinness, one of many notable artists whose work has been acquired or commissioned by RxArt.
In another section of the Child Study Center, giant butterfly decals adorn the walls. In yet another, a peaceful, intoxicating video loop of a pulsating jellyfish is projected onto an otherwise bare wall.
Brown, who is the president of RxArt, tells the story of a 12-year-old boy who was a patient at Schneider Children’s Hospital on Long Island. Fascinated by a video installation of graceful flamingos created by the artist Dominik Lejman for RxArt, the boy announced to Brown that he was about to undergo radiation treatment but hoped animals would still be present in the room when he emerged.
“I said to the artist, ‘Please change the DVD. Put in a tiger,'” says Brown. “The boy’s mother told me that he had had six brain surgeries that year. She seemed so happy that he was so engaged. The boy came running back from radiation and at first the tiger was crouching down, so he didn’t see anything and his face sort of fell. But then, all of a sudden, the tiger stands up and the boy’s eyes just went huge.”
Video is just one of numerous media in which contributing artists have worked for RxArt; others have included lithographs, sculptures, woodcuts and even computer art.
The organization also produced a coloring book, featuring contributions from 27 art world heavyweights, among them R. Crumb, William Wegman, Sol LeWitt, Gary Hume, John Baldessari and the late Keith Haring. An expanded edition, titled “Between The Lines,” will soon be available in museums as well as through RxArt’s Web site, www.rxart.net.
Originally from Cleveland, Brown studied medicine in college and subsequently went into the field of cancer research. But she ultimately decided that she really wanted to work in the art world. She opened her first gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1976, then moved to Manhattan several years later, opening a gallery in SoHo. After closing it in 1992, Brown became an art curator for corporate and private clients. She enjoyed the job but found it unchallenging.
RxArt was conceived while Brown spent time in a hospital herself. “I was having a CAT scan and it was terrifying to me. I was so afraid. I wanted to be out of there. The room was nothing but unrelieved white but I imagined – it was just a defense mechanism – a Matthew Ritchie painting going up the wall and across the ceiling. It took me out of the room and out of the hospital and out of the procedure.”
At the turn of the century, the divorced Brown put her idea into motion, calling upon her two grown children, both of whom are now editors at consumer magazines, to come up with a name for her new enterprise. She launched the organization by placing a Ritchie print in Rockefeller University Hospital on the upper East Side.
“The patients in Rockefeller are there for a long time,” says Brown, recalling a conversation with one woman. “She was having some dermatological procedure done and I asked her, ‘Are you enjoying the art?’
“She said, ‘When I first was in this room I looked at it and I thought, I don’t know what that’s about, and I just didn’t pay any attention to it. But I’m here, and there’s not much to look at, so I looked at it again and now every day I’m finding something new.’
“That’s the best thing about art,” says Brown, “that everybody sees in it what they want to see.”
In addition to NYU, Rockefeller and Schneider, RxArt, which has its headquarters on Astor Place in the East Village, currently has a presence in Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Medical Center, the Children’s Advocacy Center and Elizabeth Seton Pediatrics Hospital. The organization is presently in talks with several other facilities, including one in Boston.v
“I’d like to expand as much as possible,” says Brown. “I don’t see any reason why there couldn’t be RxArt chapters in every city. You have museums in every city. You have art professionals, you have great artists. There’s no reason why you can’t put good art in hospitals all over the country.”
“I applaud Diane’s commitment to bridging the gap between the arts and health care,” says Dr. Harold Koplewicz, founder and director of the NYU Child Study Center. “Inspired by her vision, these talented artists create a comforting and creative environment for patients and staff. RxArt has fostered a creative, playful and fun atmosphere for both our patients and our clinicians.”
“Illness is very democratic,” Brown says, explaining her desire to bring cheer and thoughtfulness to the drabbest of atmospheres.
“If you’re not in a hospital for yourself it could be for a loved one, a friend. We all get to experience the inside of a hospital and it’s not a fun place. So the more lively and interesting we can make them, everybody wins.”
Originally published on November 27, 2006