Art at the Hospital: Some Thoughts On Aesthetics and Medicine

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A landscape by Tom Tartaglino at the UVA Medical Center. A landscape by Tom Tartaglino at the UVA Medical Center.

This summer, I’ve noticed art in unlikely places around town: local hospitals.

McGuffey Art Center member artist Lindsey Oberg had new mixed media works on display at Martha Jefferson Hospital in June. “In the Country” by Richard Bednar and “Sightings,” a collection of photographs by Frank Feigert, have been featured in UVA Medical Center’s Main Hospital lobby during the summer months. In addition to these featured shows, UVA Medical keeps a surprising amount of artwork on permanent display as well.

There was a time when hospitals were crisp, clean, immaculately sterilized, and notorious for “that hospital smell.” Now it seems that ideas in medicine are changing. Aesthetics are upheld more frequently, and there is a higher appreciation for the impact of our surroundings on our psyche and mental well-being.

There are several examples of art therapy practices in which the experience of beauty is used to aid traditional medicine. Recently, several window washers visited Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital as superheroes, bringing smiles and joy to the patients. UVA Medical Center also has a group of “clowns” that volunteer on a weekly basis. (“Compassionate Clowning” provides comfort and emotional support to patients and family by creating an environment that alleviates anxiety and stress.) A recent study even found that patients undergoing surgery while music plays remain calmer and cope better during their recovery compared to patients who are operated on in silence.

It might be easy to conclude that showing art in a medical setting may have similar effects. The previous example of window washer heroes bears resemblances to happenings from the 1980’s. Art is a very broad medium of expression, and through the very crafting process itself, it can showcase, embrace or entice a huge array of emotions.

So why is it that much of the art on display at the hospitals feels like an afterthought? Obviously, our taxpayers may not want to feel as though their money is being used to fund art as opposed to medical research. However the timid patchwork curation which currently inhabits the hospital halls is a far cry from what it could be.

Even if we consider that art in a state-funded hospital must be largely non-confrontational, much of the work on display seems like an apology. Prints are stuck behind glass and unobtrusively hung behind counters. The primary display wall at the UVA Medical Center is a small patch of gray that hugs a corner near the cafeteria entrance. Here and there we find permanent pieces: a bust of Thomas Jefferson by a pillar; an oil landscape by Tom Tartaglino extending across the wall from the Administration Office. A few pieces have been hung in honor of donors or patients, but none appear to be placed with intent, pride, or flourish.

This absence is unfortunate as so much of the work was obviously chosen with care by some unknown person at the hospital. The paintings and sculptures are beautifully crafted. Each brushstroke vibrates with individuality. The bronze castings of heads stare thoughtfully, it is as if the artwork is begging to suddenly become more significant.

Art can be thought of as just another pretty thing to look at or use to cover walls, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In the play of light and form, stories can be told, memories drawn out, and, dare I say it, wounds could be healed.

~ Rose Guterbock and Aaron Miller

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