Hospitals often acquire art through a combination of philanthropic giving and percent-for-art laws, like the one on the books in New York City, which requires eligible city-funded construction projects to spend one percent of their budgets on public artwork. Unlike other public buildings, hospitals are built with a mission to serve patients, and as a result of their commitment to patient care, how hospitals’ arts programs care for their collections also differs from other public organizations, such as museums.
“As a hospital, our standards are probably more akin to a lot of corporate art collections,” said Cohen. While she and her staff see themselves as stewards of the art, they don’t have the same flexibility as a museum, where works can be rotated to allow for regular conservation. With millions of square feet of wall space to fill, “our goal is to have all our art on view,” she said.
Iowa’s Scherting concurred with Cohen: “We don’t have control of the environment like a museum has control of their environment.”
Scherting sees hospitals’ art collections as working collections. “It’s out there working every day,” he said. Compared to what he experienced working in museums, the conservation issues faced by art in hospitals can be difficult for him to wrap his head around, he said. “But I have to appreciate the role that the work is playing in this particular environment.”
For others, though, the particulars of the hospital environment pose risks to the artworks displayed there.
“If you look at it from a conservation point of view, it’s really problematic because you’re putting them into an environment that is just not good for art in so many ways,” said Margaret Holben Ellis, president of the American Institute for Conservation in Washington, D.C. “For me, going into a hospital and seeing a work of art that has conservation problems is like seeing a sick patient.”
Given that so many pieces of art in hospitals have become culturally significant, the topic needs careful unpacking, she said. “I think conservators would welcome a dialogue to address this issue.”
Ellis added that the first step for any collecting institution is to establish collection-care policies that include taking a holistic view of environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, transport, lighting, and air pollution. Insurance and other economic concerns should also be taken into account. Many pieces in hospitals’ collections have become more valuable over the years, which probably is a driving force when it comes to decision making, Ellis said. But conservators do not make value judgments about works of art, she added. “I think the hospital administration has to make a policy decision about those works.”
Dang said she is working with members of NYC Health + Hospitals’s art advisory council—a group that includes medical staff, hospital administrators, and community members—to determine which pieces ought to be sold, placed in storage, or conserved. Her priority is to raise funds to conserve and maintain her hospitals’s art collection. She is also focused on implementing the audio tours, which will provide opportunities for patients and staff to slow down and reduce their stress levels.
She added: “Artwork actually helps bring the humanity back into the hospital.”