The healing arts

Art’s ability to soothe the troubled soul is well-noted. But can it do the same for souls that are outright sick and world-weary? One local hospital is willing to give it a try.

This “Triple Helix” on display at Renown is by Richard Altman and Lyle London and made of diachronic glass and stainless steel.

This “Triple Helix” on display at Renown is by Richard Altman and Lyle London and made of diachronic glass and stainless steel.

Healing and the arts, an ages-old union that has been largely ignored in modern times, is being explored by health facilities worldwide. From placing art in hospitals to providing live music for patients and visitors to creating on-site gardens, healthcare organizations are incorporating the arts into the healing experience. At the forefront of this movement is Reno-based Renown Medical Center.

Doctors of soul
“We’re not completely unique in this realm,” says Phyllis Freyer, vice president of marketing and communications for Renown, “but we’re definitely on the cutting edge.”

Renown began the journey of incorporating art into its medical practice in the early 1990s with the creation of the Healing Arts program. Through a partnership with the Nevada Museum of Art, the private, nonprofit health organization established the first hospital-based, artists-in-residence program in the nation in 1998. The project brings three artists into the hospital to become, in essence, hospital employees and create art based on their interpretation of the environment. This led to the publication of The Harvest of Lesser Burdens—Art in the Fields of Medicine, which documents the program from its inception to 2003. The Healing Arts program also saw musicians play at patients’ bedsides—a gift that continues to this day—and the presentation of local art in the hospital hallways. Recently, however, Renown took the program to another level.

Climbing the walls
With the creation of Renown’s Tahoe Tower, a 10-floor, $275 million hospital expansion, the organization embarked on a major enhancement of its arts offerings in by placing original art in patients’ rooms, nurses’ bays, sitting areas, hallways, main lobby and more. In all, there will be upwards of 700 pieces of original art in the Tower when the entire art project is complete. Still in process, there are just under 500 works currently on display.

In addition to increased visual arts offerings, Renown is also incorporating more performances into their repertoire. Recently, the Reno Philharmonic Youth Symphony Orchestra performed in the lobby, and the Nevada Youth Opera has expressed interest in performing, as well.

Going forward, work is also being done to create the healing garden, which is intended to be a tranquil place of contemplation, reflection and peace for patients and their families. It will feature three sculptures by artist Cork Marcheschi, medicinal plants and herbs, and a water feature.

Chicken soup for the local artist
Working with Renown to select and place the work is Turkey Stremmel, co-owner of Reno-based Stremmel Gallery.

In all, the project includes work by 80 artists, 50 of them from this region, and the number is growing. Stremmel predicts that there could be 90 or more artists represented by the time the project is finished. The variety of media is tremendous, from oil paintings to works on metal, graphite drawings, photography and sculpture. This is the largest single art undertaking she’s ever seen in Northern Nevada.

“I’ve been talking to people in the art community,” she says, “and no one has seen a project of this size, with this much original art and of such quality.”

Phyllis Freyer of Renown, sees her reflection along with David Kessler’s painting ‘Sunrise Shimmer,” one of the art works displayed at the medical center.

This is not only a boost to the healthcare community, it’s also a boost to the arts community. Since the hospital sees an enormous amount of foot traffic each day, people who don’t typically view local fine art are exposed to it.

“Aside from the airport, we probably have the most people walking through our campus on a daily basis,” Freyer says. “Thousands of people go through here every day.”

Stremmel anticipates that such exposure and the impressive magnitude of this project will have a positive impact on the community. As people realize what a great statement original art can make, Stremmel sees the possibility for it to “grow antennas into the community,” drumming up encouragement for other such projects in public spaces.

Pushing Boundaries, Changing Minds
Evidence of the benefits of art in the healing process is largely subjective or anecdotal, though there have been scientific studies conducted that point to its effectiveness. Chinese hospitals have played “healing music” for its patients over PA systems for decades. Perhaps most notable in sanctioned studies is the research that Dr. Roger Ulrich of Texas A&M University, College Station has done in measuring the effects of art on medical outcomes. According to the article “The Arts of Healing,” published in 1999 in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Medical News & Perspectives, his findings indicate that “psychologically appropriate art can substantially affect outcomes such as blood pressure, anxiety, intake of pain medication and length of hospital stay.”

According to an August 1997 article published in The Lancet, which also draws on Ulrich’s studies, “Recent research has provided evidence that the overall hospital environment (in which art can have a vital role) does have an important impact. Roger Ulrich, Texas A&M University, investigated the effects of visual stimulation on the rate of recuperation. He found that patients with vibrant surroundings … recovered three-quarters of a day faster, and needed fewer painkillers than those with dull surroundings.”

Prescription- strength Picasso
Dr. Steven Bajo, director of physician services at Renown, notes that the effect of art on patients is difficult to measure in concrete terms because so much of it is how it makes people feel. And, until the last year, he hadn’t looked into incorporating it into his practice. After investigating the link between art and healing, he embraced the concept. He notes that interest in exploring new and different methods to treat patients (referred to as Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or CAM) is becoming more mainstream in the medical community, and he’s been pursuing it more avidly in the past five to six years.

“I am always looking for ways of pushing the boundaries of what I offer to patients,” says Dr. Bajo. He notes that this forward-thinking program meshes well with his interest in expanding his practice.

Bajo says he’s hearing positive feedback from his patients about the art in the Towers. One patient commented that the art doesn’t just boost patients’ moods, it’s a boost to everyone, including family.

All the warm fuzzies aside, there have been some naysayers along the way, questioning whether such an effort and cost is really worth it. But the minds of some doubters are being swayed now that the work is up. Freyer notes that one such woman who wasn’t behind the project to begin with recently told her that she “gets it” now. And, to those who may question the financial burden such an endeavor places on the facility—whether or not it’s a worthwhile effort monetarily—Freyer points out that the costs for such upgrades are a fraction of a percent of the cost of healthcare. It’s so minimal, comparatively, that room cost is not increased as a result.

“It’s gives you a great feeling in your heart,” says Stremmel.

And a healthy heart is half the battle.