How Hospitals Are Helping Art Reach More People

Two of the most popular areas of philanthropic work in the United States are healthcare and supporting the arts, so it probably shouldn’t be surprising to see the two converge. Still, the growth in hospital initiatives that involve the arts has been a significant path to exposing the public to new artists and works over the last decade or two, and the practice continues to grow. Across the country, hospitals and other major institutions are finding new ways to feature art that goes beyond just augmenting a space and into documenting the cultural life of the area.

Hospitals as the New Public Galleries

As hospital architecture changed over the past hundred years to incorporate more open galleries and public promenade spaces that cater to the professionals working there, patients, and their families, they have found the need to decorate that space and cultivate an atmosphere that is at once inviting and calming, and that reflects the right kinds of attitudes for the location. Often, the artwork commissioned and displayed is built around the theme of the location, too.

A prime example of this use of topical art to create an educational, almost museum-like atmosphere in appropriate public spaces is the Taubman Center at the University of Michigan, which features both local art from the Ann Arbor area and historic relics of past ages of medicine like antique leech jars and enlightenment-era surgical tools. The location within the hospital complex puts those displays near the regular offices for orthopedics, cardiology, and the outpatient blood lab, providing hospital guests and patients with more than just decor while reflecting the purpose of that part of the hospital.

Engaging the Cultural Life of a City

Today’s hospitals do more than just display art to their patients and guests. In some locations, they are working to actively engage the local public, making their spaces into an area that reflects the community and not simply a destination for healthcare. Bronson Hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan is a great example of a hospital leading the charge in this regard. As a regular exhibit site on the city’s monthly Art Hop route, they commit to displaying work by local artists, many of whom either have galleries on the nearby Kalamazoo Mall or work spaces in the Park Trades Building on the other side of the heart of downtown.

The Art Hop is a way of stimulating the local economy while making culture accessible, providing a foot route through the city and many local businesses monthly that allows boutique shops to sell wares to a larger audience while hosting a space for artists who need to sell their work as well. As a core exhibit site, Bronson Hospital not only provides opportunity to local artists, it rewrites the public narrative about what a hospital can be and do. Another great example of this is on the other side of the country, in San Francisco.

The Hearts in San Francisco Project debuted as a cultural exhibit and fundraiser for the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation in 2004. Over the past decade and a half, it has raised millions for the foundation while providing work for local artists when it commissions its annual heart sculptures, which display around the city for the general public to view. It’s an innovative program that is old enough to be one of the original examples of this kind of outreach succeeding in communities.

Bringing Art to the Public Locally

If you are interested in helping encourage your local hospitals and other healthcare institutions to engage more with the local arts community, there are clear ways to find that support within the organization. Projects like the one in San Francisco are successful because they have great organizers and because they engage the support of core hospital board members, like San Francisco General Hospital Foundation Director Pam Baer, who supported this project from its inception and throughout its ongoing tenure in the city. The right support from within the hospital’s board is crucial to getting new initiatives like this off the ground, because that support:

  • Helps with the acquisition of space and funding
  • Sets the tone for other board members and staff
  • Provides you with an inside spokesperson for the project

There’s no substitute for engaging with the leaders of local organizations if you are looking for ways to bring your community together and rewrite the narrative about how public spaces are used and what role art plays in various settings throughout a community’s public life. It’s an important conversation, and one that only works if local institutions decide to join. Many of the hospitals that have successfully done this have the support of universities with their own art departments, but not all of them. Don’t be afraid to be an advocate if you are trying to bring new ideas about art to your local community, and don’t be afraid to look for other advocates, either.

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