Friday, February 4, 2011

Are hospitals becoming the new museums?

A Cleveland Clinic staff member walks past
Whispering, by Jaume Plensa.
Recently, I have had many occasions to visit two of the finest hospitals in the United States, located right here in Cleveland, University Hospitals Case Medical Center and the Cleveland Clinic. As an art enthusiast and museum advocate, I was struck by both the quantity and quality of the artwork exhibited throughout these enormous hospitals.

A child at the Cleveland Clinic delights
in front of a computer video installation
by Jennifer Steinkamp.
Far from the drab hotel-variety artwork one might expect, the art was engaging, diverse, sometimes comforting, often contemplative, and in a few cases playful.

Open Red Pyramid, 1996. Cast glass
sculpture by Stanislav Libensky and
 Jaroslava Brychtova
 at University
Hospitals Case Medical Center.
From what appeared to me to be a giant framework organ hanging from an atrium ceiling, to a radiant orange glass sculpture set in a quiet corner bathed by natural light, I was consistently surprised by the intentional and inspired placement of the art in these hospital buildings. Insightful labels, appropriate lighting, and even an audio tour (at the Clinic Clinic) rounded out the museum-like experience afforded to patients and visitors. Who was working behind the scenes to make all of this possible?

At the Cleveland Clinic, the nation's #1 heart 
hospital, BlueBerg (r11/01) by Inigo
Manglano-Ovalle was based on the shape
of an iceberg, but is reminiscent of a
three-story heart.

There must be curatorial staff? After a bit of research, I discovered that each of these hospitals has a distinguished art department, and both were recognized in 2010 with one of the highest honors in Cleveland, the Cleveland Arts Prize. Mickie McGraw, one of the other prize winners, founded an art therapy program and runs the Art Studio at MetroHealth Medical Center, Cleveland's third major hospital. Now, I was intrigued-- fine art of every flavor, commissioned pieces, high-quality interpretation, changing gallery spaces, and award-winning programs-- are these hospitals becoming the new museums?

Cleveland Soul, 2007, by Jaume Plensa,
Cleveland Clinic.

Consider a few factors working in favor of the hospitals.

-no gallery admission fees
-long visiting hours make for extended gallery hours
-buildings are necessarily designed for visitors with many special needs

-enviable acquisition budgets
-funding specifically available for art therapy
-shared pool of dedicated patrons, as aging art enthusiasts and collectors become regular health care consumers and visitors

-collaborators on exhibits, education, and projects involving the human body, mind, and spirit
- vast collections, professional curatorial staff, and a clear institutional mission

Art department staff installing a temporary
exhibit in a hallway gallery at University
Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.
I am not suggesting that museums are going to be replaced by hospitals any time soon. Certainly, I don't think that will ever happen. Rather, the question I want to answer is what can we learn from these incredible hospitals about making our visitors' experiences more meaningful?

What can the Cleveland Clinic Art Program or Cleveland Clinic Arts and Medicine Institute teach museums about connecting people and the arts? Can these hospitals help museums find new ways to build lifelong relationships that engage our audiences, turning consumers into advocates and patrons? Are there programs provided by the Society for the Arts in Healthcare that could benefit museums, or could organizations like the American Association of Museums find potential partners in programming and advocacy, even new members in the SAH?

Dissolving the Hardness of Ego, a soft
sculpture made of hand-dyed wool
felt by Jennifer Nocon. Cleveland Clinic.
As the American public becomes increasingly dependent upon our hospitals to care for a virtually unlimited supply of illnesses, ailments, and syndromes, many people, like it or not, may find these health care environments becoming a necessary "third place." Meanwhile, drug companies and medical insurers reap ever larger profits amassing tantalizing wealth, a potential source of funding for hospitals seeking to expand collections that soothe the soul. While it is unlikely that museums will shut their doors because the health care industry is taking all of their visitors, museums would be wise to look at what our hospitals are doing right.

In light of the recent opinion pieces by Arianna Huffington and Alain de Botton, both widely and I believe rightfully criticized by museum professionals, could it still be possible that there remains a need to preserve those contemplative spaces in our galleries? If we don't, do we risk being out-museumed by our local hospitals? Look, I am not afraid of losing the Cleveland Museum Art to the Cleveland Clinic, or University Hospitals, but then neither the Museum, nor I, won a Cleveland Arts Prize last year.

What kind of arts programming does your local hospital offer? Do they have a world-renowned collection of their own? Have you checked it out? Tell me what you think by sharing your comments below.

All photographs were taken by the author during several trips to the Cleveland Clinic's Main Campus and University Hospitals Case Medical Center in 2010. 


  1. I was pleasantly surprised to see this post, as I am in the very early stages of working on a major collaboration between a hospital and local museums/cultural institutions. I can't share any of the details yet, but perhaps in a year or so I can come back and share my experiences. It's going to be amazing! :-) (p.s. don't let me forget to follow up)

  2. I love this idea. I think you make a good parallel between hospitals and museums as "third places," and I actually think that viewing hospitals and museums as similar entities opens a lot of doors. They are both places with an aim to better communities they serve. And they are both places of pride and symbols of a community's health. In that sense, I think this post plays with the role of place/location, and how that fits in with museums and hospitals missions. Thinking of a museum as a hospital or a hospital as a museum helps stretch our minds to transcend boundaries about what a museum or hospital is traditionally. And I think that's pretty cool.


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