Healing Arts

When you take a good look, it's easy to see that the word "hospital" derives from the Latin words for host and hospitality. The concept is hard to reconcile.

Elaine Sims is working on that.

She directs the University of Michigan Health System's Gifts of Art program. On a minuscule budget, Sims and her staff fill the hospital buildings – and the lives of patients – with art and music.

"When you go to the hospital, your identity is stripped away. You're very alone. Art and music are signals of safety, comfort, family, a very primal space. Art and music have a very profound effect on people," Sims says. "Art in the hospital has a job to do. It can't just sit on the wall. It has to stand the test of time, surprise and engage people."

Studies show patients who are exposed to art are calmer. Their blood pressure is lower, their rate of healing faster, and they need less pain medicine. They have a shorter stay. They hear and follow directives better. "Sometimes you can heal the body without the mind, but it works far better if the mind is involved, too," Sims says.

Gifts of Art launched at U-M in 1987, based on a similar program at the University of Iowa. Sims joined in 1990. "We're [still] waiting to be discovered," Sims says. "We have become part of the culture of the institution. In the community, people don't want to think about the hospital. That means funding's an issue," Sims says.

The hallways leading to the Gifts of Art offices in the North Ingalls Building (the former St. Joe Hospital) argue strongly for art in hospitals. Utilitarian, institutional, sterile (not in the medical sense, although the place is immaculate) are words that come to mind.

Sims' office is the opposite – a riot of color, cluttered with art works, from a recently donated oil painting of a lily pond to an endearing, near-human sized Pinocchio statue. The office echoes its occupant – full of energy and dedicated to the proposition that too much art is not enough.

In the program's early days, the art was mostly visual, mostly on the walls. Now it encompasses every medium and has moved closer to patients. More and more art in hospitals is patient-directed, providing an experience for the patient with bedside art and music, spoken word, writing.
"How go you get art to a 900-bed hospital?" Sims asks.

She counts myriad ways, from patients to visitors who use the elevator, that Gift Of Arts has become part of the hospital's culture, ever-expanding its outreach, focus and impact: Musicians perform bedside concerts for an audience of one, Art Carts brings framed posters and prints to patients' rooms, a series of quilt-themed installations by Ann Arbor's Motawi Tileworks brightens elevator lobbies throughout the Main Hospital, a grant brings kaleidoscopes to surgical waiting areas inspired by  rotating exhibits.

Whether or not you're in any condition to notice, the U-M hospital system is suffused with art, from more than 50 rotating exhibits a year in nearly every medium to the Friends Meditation Garden, always open to patients. And that doesn't even take into account The Life Sciences Orchestra's two free concerts each year, featuring members who practice medicine or are doing medical research (its next performance is January 10 at Hill Auditorium). The newest program will bring small art projects in four different kits to patients. Artists will visit patients' rooms to get them started.

Sims estimates 10,000 people a day – nearly 3.5 million people a year – see the art works or hear a performance while visiting the hospital.

"What's the purpose of art, why do we make art? I'm convinced it's deeply engrained. Psychology, anthropology, and evolutionary theory show we respond to sound and pattern because they are basic survival skills," Sims points out. This visceral endeavor happens through the efforts of Sims and her staff of ten, plus dozens of volunteers on a shoestring budget of just $400,000 annually.

"We're supported by the Friends of the University of Michigan Health System [through its gift shops], gifts, grants, and a few generous donors. Dr. [Robert] Kelch (former UMHS CEO) tried to create a $10 million endowment. That's still on the table," Sims says. An endowment campaign is in progress through the U-M Office of Medical Development.

Gifts of Art and similar programs elsewhere contribute greatly to patient satisfaction and staff retention, Sims says. Most similar arts programs have line-item funding in the budgets of their institutions. "In a sense, having limitations can be helpful. It's led us to be more creative with the galleries – our exhibits (by local and regional artists) change every two months," Sims says.

Unlike Iowa, Gifts of Art has only a small permanent collection. Over the past few years, it's added tile "quilts" installations in the elevator lobbies of each floor of the hospital. Created by Ann Arbor's Motawi Tileworks, the quilts are related thematically but vary in color and subject from floor to floor.

"We wanted 'touchability' when we designed the murals. They need both durability and tactile appeal. They're meant to be touched. Some people can't experience them without touching," says Colleen Crawley, who heads installation project design for Motawi. "That's their appeal in a highly trafficked area – they don't need to be behind glass. They'll last for centuries. We're very proud of those pieces."

Other collection highlights are more portable, Sims says. "We have one exciting collection: 45 prints on the history of medicine by Michigan artist Robert Thom. We received it when Pfizer left town. Thom researched carefully for historical accuracy. They're from a mid-20th century perspective and Eurocentric but colorful and historically interesting" Sims says.

Gifts of Art also partners with the University of Michigan Museum of Art and the University Musical Society. UMS visiting artists go bedside two or three times a year in harmony with Gifts of Art. UMMA loans artwork from its permanent collection for display in UMHS galleries, notably a long-stored collection of Pewabic Pottery vases that is now featured at UMMA.

"We partner when money need not be involved. We all fund our own portions [of joint projects]," Sims explains. Sims also buys one piece at the Ann Arbor Art Fairs every year. Occasionally, individuals donate single works or small collections, often doctors or others who have worked at UMHS.

"Quite a few staff members are artists. Several have degrees in art and are talented artists and musicians," Sims observes. And, of course, along with patients and visitors, the hospital's staff is an important part of the audience for Gifts of Art.

Constance Crump is an Ann Arbor writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine Her previous article was The Best Of B3 In A2.


Elaine Sims Posing in Her Office-Ann Arbor

Gift of Art Installation at U of M Hospital-Ann Arbor

Elaine and Her Giant Pinocchio-Ann Arbor

Elaine's Additional Revenue Stream-Ann Arbor

Motawi Quilt Installation-Ann Arbor

Painting Installation at U of M Hospital-Ann Arbor

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski
is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. 

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