We didn’t want to do Disney characters or wallpaper,” says Diane Brown, the founder of RxArt, a New York-based nonprofit organization that brings contemporary art into hospitals and health care settings around the country. “We want to offer challenging work to help get patients out of their heads, out of the hospital for a bit.” That’s a tall order, since RxArt often works with facilities that treat children, some with life-threatening and terminal diseases. All the more reason that Brown, a curator and private art dealer before starting RxArt in 2000, enlisted artists like Will Cotton and Rob Pruitt to create works for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, one of the world’s largest childhood cancer centers, which — miraculously in this day and age — covers the exorbitant costs of treatment for uninsured families. Pruitt made a series of his signature pandas out of shimmering, sequin like discs; Cotton created two of his Candy Land-style paintings, having invited a 3-year-old girl with a rare brain cancer to help him build the gingerbread house maquettes. These pieces now hang in St. Jude’s bright new cafeteria, where staff and patients all get to enjoy them. Cotton, along with artists like Assume Vivid Astro Focus and Mark Grotjahn, has also contributed to an RxArt coloring book.
Meanwhile, in what appears to be RxArt’s most ambitious project yet, this month Jeff Koons will install some of his exuberant pieces inside a CAT scan room at Advocate Hope Children’s Hospital in Chicago — including on the machine itself. Brown, who recalls how afraid she was during her own CAT scan a few years back, couldn’t imagine what the experience was like for a child. Now, instead of facing a cold industrial machine, young patients will get to see Koons’s images of dog balloons, colorful hearts and smiling monkeys.
For the bone marrow transplant unit at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, the artist Jason Middlebrook created a wall painting titled “Traveling Seeds,” explaining, “Patients have received bone marrow from other people, somewhat like the seedpods floating from one destination to the next to spawn life.” The work, a symbol of hope and regeneration, is there to buoy the spirits of those going in for treatment, as well as those of the doctors and nurses. (“The patients they work with are so critically ill,” Brown says.) And the artists themselves have found some unexpected comfort. After he finished his work for RxArt, Pruitt told Brown, “I think you got me into heaven.”
– Maura Egan