Rx Art For Hospitals: Just What The Curator Ordered For most people, hospitals can be pretty scary -- even if you're going there to get well. But the nonprofit Rx Art is trying to change that by bringing serious art into a hospital's most difficult spaces.

Rx Art For Hospitals: Just What The Curator Ordered

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Think about hospitals for a moment. They can be intimidating places. So the people who design them have been trying to make them more physically welcoming. Some new hospital buildings have been designed by famous architects, and feature lobbies filled with art. But what about the most stressful spaces for patients - the rooms where they undergo treatment?

NPR's Margot Adler introduces us to a woman who's trying to bring art and imagination to those rooms as well.

MARGOT ADLER: When Diane Brown had a CAT scan in a stark, unforgiving hospital room, it changed her life's work. She remembers how frightened she was.

Ms. DIANE BROWN (Founder and Executive Director, RxArt): I was on a gurney with my - strapped in with an IV in my arm, and the only way I could get out was in my imagination. And I just spontaneously imagined a painting going up the side wall and across the ceiling. And I really went into that painting, and the scan was over. And I felt I hadn't been there. It was amazing. So I thought, I want to do that for other people.

ADLER: Brown had a background as an art curator, gallery owner and private art dealer. So she decided she would try to put serious art in hospitals, not just in the lobbies but in the places where treatment takes place. She set up RxArt, a nonprofit, raised more than $100,000, and at first, she had no luck.

Ms. BROWN: I bought all this art I thought would be appropriate for hospitals. It was really good art, but I couldn't get a hospital to take a chance.

ADLER: After talking to many hospitals, Rockefeller University Hospital took a chance and then another place and then another. The art comes with no cost to the institution.

Mark Swanson, an artist who has been working with Brown to look for an appropriate hospital that might like his work, says what Brown is doing is difficult. It's being an art dealer, a philanthropist, a curator, an organizer, all at once.

Mr. MARK SWANSON (Artist): Diane gets approached by hospitals, sort of talks with them about their needs, pitches an artist to them and then talks to the artist. I mean, it's an incredible amount of work.

ADLER: Jeff Koons designed a pediatric CAT scan room at Advocate Hope Children's Hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois, with monkeys on the CAT scan unit itself. There are some 18 completed projects so far in places like Boston, Memphis and Chicago. Brown takes me to the bone marrow transplant center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

Jason Middlebrook, an artist who uses environmental themes, has painted a glorious abundance of flowers and seeds that are germinating and floating on the wind. They are on the walls, on columns and even in unexpected places. Diane Brown.

Ms. BROWN: This is one of my favorite parts with the dandelion. I love the little wishes blowing because I always thought of them as wishes, and heaven knows, everybody here is wishing to be well, so its very resonant for me.

ADLER: Nurses and doctors say when the artist first came in to paint, people were a little nervous, but they ended up adopting him. Artist Jason Middlebrook.

Mr. JASON MIDDLEBROOK (Artist): It's a fragile environment, but as soon as you start working, people just perk up. They just love it.

ADLER: This is a hard place. The mortality rate is high. Dr. Luis Isola is the director of bone marrow transplantation at Mount Sinai.

Dr. LUIS ISOLA (Director of Bone Marrow Transplantation, Mount Sinai): Generally, the decor of bone marrow transplant units is significantly limited by the types of materials we can use, sterility concerns and things like that. So these units tend to be very stark and the addition that RxArt has made to our walls is just amazing. This is real art. This is beautiful stuff. This is like bringing nature into the ward.

Ms. JOAN SORICH (Nurse Manager): One of the nurses who remarked on it, she said, Joan, it makes you happy. It makes you feel happy.

ADLER: Joan Sorich is the nurse manager on the unit.

Ms. SORICH: We get so close to the patients and their families, it really tugs at you, but I think having the murals here, the paintings just really represents our mission, life giving. You know, we try to help people heal and not only physically and physiologically heal and recover but also emotionally, spiritually, everything. I think the paintings touch on so many parts for people.

ADLER: For Jason Middlebrook, the artist, the bone marrow giving new life to patients and the seeds germinating, it seemed the perfect metaphor.

Mr. MIDDLEBROOK: Things are airborne, and they are airborne for a reason. And they are airborne to go make more life and plus the environment needed - those hospitals need an injection of life, no pun intended.

ADLER: RxArt is working on new projects in Texas, Louisiana, Illinois, California and New York. If we can take someone out of the hospital in their mind, says Brown, and have them engrossed in a work of art, even for a few minutes, we will be succeeding.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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