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U.S. hospital puts healing power of art to work

KANSAS CITY, Missouri ― When you push through the revolving doors of an inner-city hospital, you don’t expect modernist sculptures in Popsicle colors between the glass doors.

But at Truman Medical Center in Kansas City, glazed ceramics in abstracted flower shapes twirl around with the human traffic 24 hours a day. The display shelves are positioned low, at wheelchair level. Or scared-kid level.

The sculptures are not gift shop trinkets, but the work of acclaimed local ceramicist Linda Lighton.

Inside the lobby, two large abstract paintings by Rhode Island artist Tony Ramos hang in front of a grand piano in the main seating area. Tiny spotlights illuminate the paintings and help reduce glare on their protective Plexiglas coverings.
Staff and hospital patients at Truman Medical Center can view large pieces of art. A hallway inside the hospital is called the Cerner Corporation Gallery. (Kansas City Star/MCT)
Staff and hospital patients at Truman Medical Center can view large pieces of art. A hallway inside the hospital is called the Cerner Corporation Gallery. (Kansas City Star/MCT)

Behind the piano, a small chapel is home to three large, intricately detailed textile panels by nationally exhibited quilter Sonie Ruffin.

Corridors that until recently were white, bright and echo-y have been transformed with wood- and marble-look vinyl flooring, textured earth tone wallpaper, faux wood handrails, soft track lighting and fine art everywhere. It feels more like a sleek hotel than a hospital with a Level 1 trauma center.

The makeover is part of Truman CEO John Bluford’s ambitious vision of creating “a hospital inside an art gallery” rather than a gallery inside a hospital. That’s because Bluford believes educating entry-level employees and improving their daily lives will improve how patients are handled.

Bluford has enlisted big-name local and national partners for his pet program, including the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Byron Cohen Gallery, Walgreens, Cerner Corp., Morrison Management Specialists, the Mayo Clinic, Fisk University in Nashville and the local chapters of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Theta Boule and the Links social organizations.

The results are impressive: More than 600 pieces of art are on display, and the hospital employs a part-time curator to select works and decide where to put them.

The first time Rachael Blackburn Cozad, director of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, toured the art in the hospital, she was excited by the extensive displays of contemporary pieces and by Bluford’s knowledge and commitment to the program.

“I’m impressed with how high he aims,” Cozad said. “They’ve got some great pieces.”

Normally the Kemper conducts a long, involved evaluation before lending art; security and climate-control issues have to be resolved to protect the pieces and satisfy insurers. But the museum was so impressed with the mission of Truman’s art program that it fast-tracked the process and approved a six-month loan of a large watercolor by Peruvian-born artist Till Freiwald.

“If you’re in the hospital, you’ve probably got something going on in your life, so it’s nice to have something else to focus on, something that begs you to stop and take a look,” Cozad said.

James Martin took over as curator for the hospital two months ago after a seven-year stint as curator for Sprint. Before that, Martin was assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

“I was very impressed they got a loan from the Kemper,” Martin said. “That showed me they were a serious program.” Martin says art programs in hospitals are common; about 50 percent of hospitals nationwide have them. But it’s rare for a safety-net hospital to have museum-quality art hanging in the corridors, he said.

The art seems to be making a difference in the lives of many hospital employees. If you randomly stop nurses, maintenance staff or technicians in the hallways and ask them which floor is their favorite in terms of the art or which is their favorite piece, they can tell you without hesitation.

Carpenter Bill Smith likes the fourth floor best. His favorite piece is a Peruvian folk art textile that depicts a woman weaving a rug under a tree in a mountain village.

“Every time I look at that I think of my grandmother,” Smith said. “She would always have a group of ladies over to make a quilt.”

Stepping closer to the piece and pointing at details, he said, “You’ve got about everything in here, with the buildings and the landscape and the clothing and the birds and flowers. You are passing down a lifestyle and history. I’ve stood and looked at this for 10 minutes before.”

That piece is one of several Peruvian arpillera quilts that share a hallway with a framed Guatemalan huipil garment and a series of photographs of South American women weaving and wearing traditional clothing.

“They are all different but related,” Smith said.

When Breanna Worley, a registered nurse from Kansas City, came to Truman four years ago, she thought the work environment was sterile and institutional. “Now it’s comforting and calming.”

Worley’s favorite piece is a large paper cutout work by Argentinean artist Ana Maria Hernando. Worley, who went to Paseo Academy, a performing and fine arts high school, appreciates the creativity involved in the paper cutout technique. She also likes the vibrant colors and floral motif.

“Looking at it makes me happy,” she said.

Volunteer services director Niki Donawa was recently escorting a visitor from another TMC campus. As the two women walked along a corridor lined with prints on loan from Fisk University, they broke off a work conversation to comment on the art: “Ah, man. That’s beautiful.” “That’s gorgeous.”

Even though Donawa sees the beauty every day, it still moves her. “The art grabs your attention. You always stop. It’s very soothing. It adds a lot to your day,” she said.

Curating art for a hospital, Martin says, is quite different from curating for a museum. The audience is different, with a much wider range of educational levels and expectations that have to be taken into account in selecting works and writing the labels that accompany them.

The Cerner Corporation Gallery in the second floor radiology department illustrates how the hospital has been able to make a big splash on a small budget. The Kansas City-based medical information technology company paid for renovations to the hallways, and the artworks are on loan from Byron Cohen Gallery. It’s a win-win situation for the hospital and the gallery, which recently closed its brick-and-mortar space to become an online-only dealer.

There are technical challenges to hanging art in a hospital as well. In rooms where patients are treated, for example, artworks have to be first framed and then hermetically sealed to prevent the spread of germs. The focus of Truman’s art program is public areas and hallways, but a few pieces have been sealed and hung in treatment rooms.

Patient safety issues can play out in other unexpected ways. One group of lenticular prints, which create a 3-D effect like the moving image prizes found in Cracker Jack boxes, was deemed unsuitable for display in a major corridor after a neurologist said the prints could be bad for patients who suffer from seizures. Those prints now hang inside the legal department.

One of Martin’s challenges in his first two months on the job has been trying to locate and identify the hospital’s more than 600 artworks.

One metal wall sculpture in the hospital chapel is labeled “‘Falling Leaves’ by Unknown.” The piece was given to the hospital as a gift years ago, but no record can be found of the artist’s name.

“We are a work in progress. We just want to find out who made it,” Martin said.

On a recent afternoon when Martin was touring the hospital’s diabetes center for the first time he stopped in front of some oil landscape paintings by Peter Cole. “I wondered where those were,” he said.

Nearby, in a conference area, Martin spotted a Roy Lichtenstein lithograph that he knew existed but had never seen. When a colleague said it was put in the out-of-the-way spot because it wasn’t one of Bluford’s favorites, Martin suggested that a change of location might solve the problem.

“I think (Bluford) would come to have a different relationship to that piece if it was displayed near pieces that related to it,” he said.

Although Bluford is very involved in dealings with artists and galleries, he respects the role of the curator. “I wanted a curator to give the program credibility,” he said.

He has earned it, according to Jan Schall, modern and contemporary art curator for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

“It is absolutely remarkable. I’ve never seen anything like it in any hospital I’ve ever visited,” Schall said. “It’s a very well thought out program that brings in beautiful, important works of art that really speak to people.”

By Cindy Hoedel

(McClatchy Newspapers)

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)
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