Arthur Kvarnstrom, “Dunnfield Creek 37” (2014)

WEST HARRISON, NY — As galleries and museums are for practical reasons limited to exhibitions of modest duration, alternatives are perennially sought by artists, often leading them to less than suitable locations like restaurants, offices, and corporate lobbies. Fortunately, some exhibition alternatives can actually enhance the art chosen for installation while also serving the original purpose of the space.

Arthur Kvarnstrom, “Dunnfield Creek 72813” (2014) (click to enlarge)

Such is the case at Memorial Sloan Kettering’s (MSK) outpatient treatment facilities, located throughout the NYC metropolitan area, including Brooklyn, Manhattan, New Jersey, Long Island, and Westchester, where the display of art is given more than cursory attention. Occupied transiently by cancer patients whose condition tends to be fraught with apprehension, these facilities now sponsor the exhibition of art as an opportunity to enhance the healing process with the MSK Outpatient Art Program, established in 2013 with Sarah Campbell as its first permanent Outpatient Curator.

More than a mere consultant, Campbell is the director of a design and collection development program charged with integrating art into MSK’s mission of providing state-of-the-art science and clinical research in support of cancer treatment. She coordinates all curatorial decisions regarding temporary and permanent installations with a committee of medical and support staff that focuses on what can be learned from the predisposition of their cancer patients toward the art they encounter at MSK’s various locations. By doing so, the Outpatient Art Program hopes to gain a better understanding of how art and a designed environment might help with the healing process.

Installation view of Arthur Kvarnstrom at Memorial Sloan Kettering’s West Harrison facility in Westchester County, New York (click to enlarge)

On a recent visit to the West Harrison facility in Westchester County, New York, Campbell served as my guide through spaces that have benefitted from the committee’s attention. Notable among them was a waiting room for chemotherapy patients doubling as an expertly installed exhibition of Arthur Kvarnstrom watercolors, the presence of which seemed to enhance the room’s tranquility. Considered exclusively as art, Kvarnstrom, an established and particularly gifted colorist, was a sound choice. However, the choice involved more than a connoisseur’s eye. Art chosen for MSK must clear nontraditional criteria pertaining to content both represented and implied. It is a distinctly pragmatic approach, one that often produces surprising results. For instance, Campbell once had to forego featuring what she felt was a compelling abstract canvas because the medical staff noticed the picture was similar to a medical scan that would have been ominously familiar to patients and would have likely invoked anxiety.


Joan Grubin, “Mnemonic #4” (2004), acrylic on paper, staples

The methodology applied by the Outpatient Art Program is not unique to MSK. Laura Landro writing for the Wall Street Journal last year cited an often used publication by the non-profit Center for Health Design titled, “Guide to Evidence-Based Art.” Written by Kathy Hathorn, MA, and Upali Nanda, PhD, it discusses and compares the results of several studies, many of which note that patients are, “… likely to respond in a negative manner to art that they cannot understand or that contains negative images or icons,” indicating that aggressive or provocative work — intriguingly the work that tends to garner the most attention in the art world — would not succeed in this context.

Installation view of Joan Grubin at Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Brooklyn Infusion Center (click to enlarge)

And yet, in following a strategy that considers people’s perceptions as well as the knowledge and taste of the director, MSK has resisted featuring art work perceived as stereotypical to health facility interior design, which can rely on the simplistic idea that landscape paintings are always a safe bet. Campbell believes that more ambitious choices are just as likely to succeed as bland ones. She aims for an art environment that feels more catered to the individual, rather than one that relies on a cookie-cutter neutrality, the hope being that work of an affirmatively challenging nature will aid those encountering it to reach a more inspired and resilient state of mind. In the business of cancer treatment, inspiration is just as important as comfort.

Installation view of Sharon Florin and of Romina Gonzales and Edison Zapata at Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Brooklyn Infusion Center (click to enlarge)

A typical installation therefore is not easily characterized. But Reflections, occupying MSK’s Brooklyn Infusion Center through September of this year, can serve as an example. The notion of reflections was envisioned to be both literal and metaphorical, presenting art made of reflective surfaces, like Joan Grubin’s “Mnemonic #4.” What appears to be a simple wall hanging features paper sections that have been painted with intense color on their reverse side and pale tints on their face. The paint on the reverse reflects the artificial light of the gallery as a soft wash of color on the wall behind the piece, interacting with the color on the front, creating a mild optical ambiguity. Sharon Florin’s paintings are views of New York architectural facades reflected in the often warped glass surfaces of adjacent buildings.

Sharon Florin, “G.E. Reflections” (2002), oil on canvas

The Outpatient Art Program thrives on patient feedback. Hence, a team of designers at MSK are creating an intuitive system that will allow all individuals who visit the facility an opportunity to comment on the art they see. This crucial feedback will provide verifiable data that will assist the program in continually learning about the healthcare audience. The program at MSK is envisioned as a full collaboration between the art and medical professions. They even hold formal gallery openings for each new installation.

Though still relatively new, such inter-professional collaborations show real promise. Additionally, they offer artists a chance to exhibit their work for extended periods, with the added perk of knowing they provide comfort to a population who may appreciate it more than the average gallerygoer.

Arthur Kvarnstrom continues at Memorial Sloan Kettering’s West Harrison facility (500 Westchester Ave, West Harrison, New York) through April 14. Reflections continues at Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Brooklyn Infusion Center (557-1 Atlantic Avenue, Downtown
Brooklyn) through September 25.

A lifelong resident of NYC and environs, Peter Malone is an exhibiting artist, a retired assistant professor of art, an involved grandfather, and an amateur musician. He really has no time to write art...

One reply on “Curating for the Cure: Medical Facilities Embrace the Power of Art”

  1. As someone who has an MFA in art and who saw both my parents through terminal lung cancer *and* who’s currently a pre-med student, I’ve been thinking about this a lot; often cancer patients in particular are regularly trapped for hours, or days, in small sterile rooms devoid of anything that might be bright or joyful without being saccharine; what MSK is doing is a great idea. Anyone chronically ill, cancer patients included, needs reminding that there’s still a world out there beyond illness.

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