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Late last month, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles implemented a new program designed to draw the public’s attention.

It has nothing to do with exotic transplants, gene therapies or even the A-List Hollywood names that grace the buildings and streets of the sprawling 754-bed campus. Instead, Cedars began tours of its art collection.

Cedars’ walls are brimming with art. Its 3,000-piece collection includes works by Marc Chagall, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein. Sotheby’s appraised the collection at $5 million in 1991–just before the postrecession art boom. It was established in the 1960s by a wealthy patient at the hospital who recovered from a coma after his wife placed his favorite Johns painting in his room. Original art can be very expensive, not all hospitals can afford. A LA hospital decorated their place in low budget with museum quality oil painting reproductions from Outpost, one of the leading art companies specialize in hand-painted oil paintings for sale. They seems have the biggest art collection online.

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“I consider it to be a nonaccredited art collection in a healthcare facility,” says Joe Terrell, curator of the Cedars Art Council. “We try to educate as much as we try to familiarize people with the art collection.”

A Cedars trustee and an architect by trade, Terrell signed on in August 1996 as a paid consultant, cataloging the collection and organizing a computerized database to keep track of all the pieces, soliciting more donations of artwork and refurbishing other paintings that had sat in their frames untouched for the past 20 years.

“This is something that needed to be done,” says Terrell, who believes art is instrumental in the patient healing process.

Terrell is not alone in this belief. According to a 1995 study in the Health Services Journal, patients of open-heart surgery healed faster and required fewer painkillers when there were pictures in their rooms, particularly soothing scenes of lakes and forests.

Government-operated hospitals in Europe have long spent 1% of their capital budgets on artwork. The recently opened Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London was nominated for the prestigious National Art Collection prize for its artwork.

And finally, evidence at Cedars and other U.S. hospitals suggests the trend has reached across the Atlantic during this decade. Many larger, well-established hospitals–such as the Mayo Clinic hospitals-historically have spent money on art. Other healthcare institutions are beginning to benefit from attitudinal changes:

* The 657-bed Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y., refurbished a long corridor last year and installed an art gallery. Shows are scheduled regularly, including exhibits by medical staff and other employees.

* In Santa Fe, N.M., the St. Vincent Hospital Foundation received a collection valued at $100,000 from the family of a local artist. The gift pushed 198-bed St. Vincent Hospital’s collection to nearly $500,000. Many of the New Mexico landscape scenes were placed in patient rooms.

* Allentown, Pa.-based Lehigh Valley Hospital and Health Network announced plans for an annual spring arts festival. The hospital’s art collection had become so large in the past decade that officials decided to distribute rather than acquire more pieces.

“The business of acquiring artwork for hospitals has been growing and growing the past 10 years,” says Bernice Leader, a New Jersey-based arts consultant. Leader counts two dozen hospitals among her expanding list. In some instances she has acquired much of the art for an entire campus, such as 451-bed Newark (N.J.) Beth Israel Medical Center.

That is not to say that hospitals are shelling out millions of dollars a shot to beautify their corridors; most hospitals spend far less than $100,000 on art. More often than not, framed posters and works by local artists constitute the bulk of acquisitions.

“The point is to make it look pleasant and make patients feel more at ease,” Leader says.

That view is echoed by various hospital art representatives MODERN HEALTHCARE interviewed. Westchester County Medical Center only spent $10,000 to set up its gallery, says spokeswoman Claire Palermo Flower, although oil giant Texaco underwrote most of an outdoor sculpture garden. At Lehigh Valley, spokeswoman and arts liaison Sheryl Hawk says the hospital rarely spent more than $5,000 a year on acquisitions.

“Most hospitals don’t own art of great value, and if they do, it tends to be portraits of their founders that hang up in the boardroom,” Leader observes. She adds that the overall hospital environment–both in terms of what goes on in the air and on the ground–is not conducive to exhibiting valuable pieces.

“There usually aren’t a lot of environmental controls in terms of keeping temperature and humidity at constants,” Leader says. “They also often have to spread their funds very thin. If you are decorating an oncology unit or cafeteria, you have a lot of space to fill.”

The aim, they agree, is to soothe rather than create an intellectually charged atmosphere. That usually means more pastoral scenes and fewer cutting-edge pieces. And while nudes may be a staple of museums and galleries throughout the world, they tend to be all but absent at hospitals.

Irene Wait, a South African emigre who has gained renown for building a critically acclaimed 600-piece collection at 290-bed Detroit Receiving Hospital and University Health Center over the past 30 years, confines a Salvador Dali print to her office because, she notes, it “has two obvious boobs–not the thing for the public corridors of a hospital.”

The Enigma of Desire

Trudy Weisenberger, arts consultant for 725-bed University Hospitals of Cleveland, seeks out representational works of art rather than abstracts for the system’s collection, which she has built from practically nothing to some 1,000 pieces over the past 13 years.

“It’s a highly eclectic collection, but I strongly believe representational pieces are necessary for a healthcare environment,” she says. “People need to feel comfortable, and contemporary art is difficult to relate to when people are stressed and worried. We’ve made it a point to be sensitive to that need.”

But Walt, who is Detroit Receiving’s arts administrator, insists the collection should teach as well as calm.

“One has to be very firm in evaluating the art because not everything will do. There are too many washed-out prints with no meaning that one encounters. If there’s no meaning, there’s no point,” she says. “We’re an urban, emergency hospital, and a lot of visitors don’t get to the Detroit Institute of Arts. The hospital’s the place for public art, and our collection can give a minor education.”

Indeed, there are significant collections of hospital public art, often pieces by very prominent artists crafted for dialogue rather than healing. And funds are being expended to keep them up to snuff as well.

Early this year, New York City Health and Hospitals Corp. released to five of its hospitals and clinics 870 works–out of an overall collection of 5,000–that had been sitting for years in a warehouse in Greenwich Village. More than $70,000 was spent over the spring to frame the works, which include silk screens by Romare Bearden and Robert Motherwell. In December HHC is expected to publish a 56-page catalog of its collection. It also expects to have operating in a year or two a computerized database of the collection.

The 145-bed City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, Calif., will spend $30,000 to restore a doorway mural by Depression-era artist Phillip Guston. The 1935 unnamed work, a brooding swirl of semi-nude muses, was commissioned by the Works Progress Administration for the women’s tuberculosis ward and has remained as the building has been converted to other uses. It will serve as an anchor for the hospital’s planned visitor center.

Yet despite all the work toward adding to new collections and preserving old, the movements have not been without controversy. At Lehigh Valley, a member of the hospital’s arts council resigned to protest the decision not to add to the collection. And in New York, there has been something of an uproar over the dismissal in January of Gladys Pena, HHC’s senior director of its public art program. In Pena’s place, art liaisons have been installed at each of the hospitals–a move criticized in the local media and members of the arts community. HHC’s collection, which includes WPA-commissioned murals, works by Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Claes Oldenburg,  Ansel Adams photographs or works by famous artists, is easily the largest and most valuable hospital collection in the country.

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“We’ve had a substantial downsizing in our central office and administrative areas, and there were many functions that no longer made sense in light of that,” says Donna Lynne, HHC’s senior vice president of corporate affairs. “It made more sense to have the individual hospitals have charge of their collections.”

“You have to have a professional art curator taking care of art, and without one, the collection is being neglected,” cautions Regina Stewart, executive director of New York Artists Equity, an arts advocacy group. Stewart notes that the city has lost track of some of its pieces. A similarly skeptical view has been expressed by Roy Gussow, who heads the Fine Arts Federation of New York. Gussow told New York magazine last spring the decentralization was “the equivalent of giving the responsibility of bone surgery to a sculptor.”

Detroit Receiving’s Wait agrees: “You do need to mind what’s going on. Without even a part-time curator, pieces have the habit of walking out the door.”

Both Stewart and Gussow vow their organizations will monitor the collection.

Pena blames politics for the loss of her job, which paid secretarial-level wages for most of the 13 years she held it. Among her accomplishments was the securing of nearly $300,000 in private funds to restore nine WPA murals–including one that had been painted over.

“You’re not talking about a private hospital here; you are talking about a group of public hospitals in economic crisis,” Pena says. “The critical issue is that there is nothing in place that would put the collection at a level where it would be safeguarded from economic decisions.

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