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.”
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