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."
There was the widower who was mourning his wife, who had died of cancer. It seems that the couple had met decades earlier while making loon calls. During the wife's long hospitalization, both made frequent visits to an elaborately beaded loon displayed in the hospital's permanent collection that had been created by a Chicago artist.
"After she died, the husband wanted to buy the loon," Sims said, "I told him I couldn't sell it, but I put him in touch with the artist. She was touched by his story, and she agreed to make another loon for him."
Corporations, universities, municipalities and other public institutions also collect and exhibit art. But a hospital setting possesses unique advantages.
Unlike a brokerage or bank, access to hospitals isn't restricted. In addition, hospitals are mostly shielded from the political pressures besetting any taxpayer-supported institution.
And large medical centers are among the few entities that can afford to collect on a grand scale, so that, for example, when the 174-bed Martha Jefferson Hospital opened last August in Charlottesville, Va., it had an instant collection of more than 700 works of art.
According to the Society for the Arts in Health Care, 56 percent of all hospitals, hospices and nursing centers rely on their operating budgets to buy paintings and sculptures. But the most expensive individual works, the Chihulys and the Grant Woods, tend to be donated by a philanthropist such as Bloomberg or by grateful former patients.
Those same philanthropists also form the bedrock of many museum collections. But the people who run the nation's arts institutions say they aren't worried that medical centers will put them out of business.
"Museums have a dual purpose," says Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
"There's the presentation piece. But museums also are responsible for preserving works of art. We hold our collections in trust for the public. That piece involves an enormous amount of resources and expertise, and it's hard for me to imagine hospitals taking it on."
Perhaps that's one reason why hospital collections feature mostly modern art. Contemporary works are less vulnerable to the ravages of time, and are more able to withstand the bustle and jostle of daily life.
For instance, Dale Chihuly's fantastic glass tubes appear as delicate as any flowers. And they are. But they're also composed of many small pieces. If one breaks, the artist provides replacement parts.
And, as Bolger hints, while the missions of hospitals and museums overlap, they are far from identical.
"Museums and hospitals usually aren't trying to acquire the same kinds of pieces," says Drapkin, the Iowa curator.
"Hospitals don't want bland motel art, but we do want art that's going to help people feel better. We're not going to go for something that's too edgy."
It's difficult to imagine, for instance, any hospital displaying such deliberately unsettling works as Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" or an Elizabeth Catlett linocut of a lynching. And, as any art historian will attest, it's the in-your-face artwork of today that frequently ages into tomorrow's masterpieces.
Indeed, museums tend to view hospitals not as adversaries, but as allies who can help the public appreciate the visual arts.
Some medical centers are located in smaller communities with few other art museums.
For example, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., is a 90-minute drive from the state's largest museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Mayo began aggressively collecting art in 1954, according to Sally Enders, the clinic's art program coordinator.
But artwork doesn't have to be made by someone famous for it to work its magic. Hopkins, for instance, intentionally decided against using its seven-figure acquisition budget to stock up on big-name artists.
"Our collecting strategy wasn't name-driven," curator Rosen says.
"We were determined to do something unique that reflected the innovative, laboratory-like DNA of Hopkins. We wanted to give people who spend a lot of time in a hospital things to think about and places to go in their imagination."
Bolger thinks that they succeeded.
"They engaged wonderful artists and did something perfect for that setting," she says.
"When I walked around that lobby, I saw fantastic pieces that were so environmental: yellow puffer fish, mother and baby animals. The art isn't an afterthought. It's an integral part of the whole experience."
Securing hospital art
Envisage this: you're carrying a cup of coffee down a hospital corridor and slip on a recently mopped floor. The scalding brown liquid splashes skyward, striking the surface of a nearby print hanging on the wall. Oops — there goes the Lichtenstein.
"Hospitals are tough places for art," says Elaine Sims, who directs the Gifts of Art program for the University of Michigan Health Systems.
"People are sick, and they fall over. We have big, heavy pieces of equipment that have to be moved. Security is always a concern."
Medical centers can't employ the standard measures for safeguarding art used by musuems, such as controlling for temperature and humidity, banning food and drink and hiring security guards. There are no systems that sound an alarm if a visitor leans in too close.
Instead, Sims said, most museums bolt their valuables onto the walls or inside cases with a three-part locking system that uses tamper-proof screws. Hospitals also invest in an expensive process called "glazing" in which a thin layer of museum-quality glass is fitted over the print or painting to protect it from both ultraviolet rays and unintentional damage caused by a ding from a gurney, or squirting ketchup.
"We don't want something of value to be knocked or nudged or fly off the wall, so we take precautions," Sims says." In the 25 years that we've had our program, we've had very little damage to any of our works of art."