Hopkins hospital art

"School of Puffer Fish" by Robert Israel hangs in the stairwell of the new Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children's Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / April 12, 2012)

When Johns Hopkins Hospital officially opens its new, $1.1 billion building Tuesday, sick children will find a cobalt cow with legs the color of grass and a butter-colored head floating above their heads, poised to jump over a fanciful "moon."

The new hospital won't just provide state-of-the-art health care. It will also provide state-of-the-art art.

The 500 original paintings, sculptures and murals, created by more than 70 artists from around the U.S., are on display throughout both the children and adult towers in the new facility. When combined with the artworks hanging in other buildings on the campus, Hopkins most likely possesses the largest art collection among Maryland hospitals.

Hopkins alumnus and New York mayor Michael C. Bloomberg couldn't be happier that part of his $120 million donation was used to purchase such artworks as Robert Israel's whimsical animals and Polly Apfelbaum's vibrant woodblock prints.

"Outcomes are so much better if patients believe and if they have hope," Bloomberg said. "And that's what art gives you. It brightens your spirits."

But Hopkins is simply the newest member of the art marketplace to be wearing a stethoscope.

Statistics show that medical centers nationwide are acquiring art collections worth millions of dollars, with the aim of improving patient satisfaction. Curator Nancy Rosen estimated that Hopkins' new collection is valued "in the low millions."

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Society for the Arts in Health Care, more than 35 percent of U.S. hospitals and medical centers in 2007 owned collections of artwork that are permanently on display. More than 15 percent hosted rotating exhibits, and 10 percent, like Hopkins, commissioned new work.

Some facilities employ staff curators and conduct regular tours. That isn't surprising, considering the importance of some of the artists on exhibit.

For instance, the Iowa Hospitals and Clinics boasts that its 4,000-piece art collection, which includes original works by Grant Wood and Andy Warhol, "is the largest art collection in Iowa outside museum walls," according to Adrienne Drapkin, director of the hospital's Project Art program.

Visitors traveling north to the Mayo Clinic will find a collection that lives up to its description as "museum-quality." Among other artworks, Mayo owns two series of Warhol prints, a statue by Auguste Rodin, a mobile by Alexander Calder and several massive light-filled sculptures by glass artist Dale Chihuly. And, that's just a small sample of the artworks adorning the clinic's main campus in southwestern Minnesota.

Nor is the acquisition of original artwork restricted to the largest and most moneyed medical centers.

For instance, the 69-bed Advocate Hope Children's Hospital in suburban Chicago has an entire room decorated by Pop artist Jeff Koons. There's the artist's familiar balloon dog in the radiology department, as well as a donkey wearing sneakers.

Koons also painted the department's X-Ray scanner robin's-egg blue and applied four of his large monkey face decals to the front. The last thing a frightened child sees as he or she is wheeled into the massive machine is the smiling face of a simian resembling Curious George.

Closer to home, the Sheppard Pratt Health System owns a collection of more than 130 pieces created by artists whose lives have been affected by mental illness, including photographer Nan Goldin and painter Louisa Chase.

And even before Hopkins began commissioning artwork for its new hospital, the institution's Kimmel Cancer Center had amassed a distinguished collection of more than 120 prints and murals by artists with national, and even international reputations, such as Baltimore's Grace Hartigan and the German-born landscape painter Wolf Kahn.

"Museums are today's temples, so going to a museum can be a reverential experience," says Elaine Sims, director of the University of Michigan Health System's Gifts of Art Program.

"What we do in health care is to take art back to its primal function, which is to be a part of your everyday life, to engage you, to distract you, to transport you. And people in hospitals are making that connection at a time when they need it the most."

In contrast to museums, medical centers are open 24/7, and the population passing through their doors includes people who might be reluctant to set foot inside a temple to the arts. And as long as human beings continue to get sick, hospitals will never have to worry about declining attendance.

"Watching patients interact with art in a hospital is really interesting," Sims says. "People call me up and beg me to sell them the art. There's a different story around every piece of art in this hospital."