Essays

What Relevance Can Art Have for Frontline Providers Right Now?

A museum educator, who generally works with medical students in the galleries, considers the healing potential of art.

Sam Ramos at the Art Institute of Chicago leads a medicine and art workshop for a class of occupational therapy students from Rush Medical College. Ramos usually begins with “Still Life with Dead Game, Fruits, and Vegetables in a Market” (1614)  by Frans Snyders (image courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago, photo by Aidan Fitzpatrick)

CHICAGO — As a museum educator, when I bring medical students and practitioners into the Art Institute of Chicago, I usually begin with “Still Life with Dead Game, Fruits, and Vegetables in a Market,” a 17th-century painting by Dutch artist Frans Snyders. I describe the painting as “observable data,” and ask participants to share the first thing they notice: a color, object, story, emotion. We then use their observations to ask questions and build narratives. I emphasize that problem-solving — which in their case means providing health solutions for patients — is a process involving perception, communication, collaboration, inquiry, and interpretation. We develop these tools using gallery exercises that explore concepts such as implicit bias, coping with grief, and the nuanced balance between objective and subjective conclusions. 

In the wake of the pandemic, my museum, like so many others, has closed, and the medical communities I help train are under extreme duress. With the benefits of art to provider health increasingly understood in medicine and museums, I have been scrambling for strategies to connect providers with the healing potential of art. My driving questions have been: How can I, in my role as an educator, provide remote art experiences that emphasize well-being, and which have previously depended on in-person engagement? And what, if any, relevance can art have for frontline providers right now? 

My initial considerations were digital. What about an app that provides short, guided reflections, coupled with artwork, that medical staff could use during breaks? I pictured a nurse practitioner like my sister, working shifts in an Albuquerque hospital, briefly escaping the chaos to breathe deeply and look. It seemed promising at first, but digital content can be difficult for providers to access while working, and the design logistics are prohibitive, particularly for someone, like myself, with a laughable grasp of technology.  

More options surfaced. For example, there is precedent for museums installing artwork in hospitals. An onsite installation could prove useful, but museum educators are currently not allowed in the museum, much less inside hospitals. Given this, and increasingly frustrated by my inability to settle on a strategy for providing tangible support within the context of my practice, I created my own simple handout featuring Brice Marden’s “Study for the Muses (Eaglesmere Version),” a painting I often use with medical groups for durational, meditative looking. I would send the handout to hospital administrators who could share it digitally or print and post where staff might see it. However, I soon came to realize this was a misguided, if well-intentioned, idea. In addition to the cumbersome, inefficient workload, a piece of paper stapled to a wall somewhere seemed unlikely to have a quality impact. 

I have been reaching out to partners in the medical field for input. Dr. Anna Maria Gramelspacher suggested providing content for a medicine and humanities blog she developed for residents at the University of Illinois at Chicago, noting that “we are so overwhelmed with information about COVID that to see a painting or read a little something art-related would be a welcome escape, for sure.” Dr. Jay Behel, a professor and frequent collaborator at Rush Medical College, also shared with me some striking feedback. “Right now,” he wrote, “providers are working, sleeping and then working again. When they finally stop, they will need space for beauty, reflection and healing.” 

This statement has become my North Star. The reality is that frontline providers, and the faculty and staff who support them, are inundated with the practical urgencies of today. They are in the midst of applying their courage, skill, and compassion to their work, and this must be their first priority. 

In the meantime, museums will strategize for ways they can serve as a space for “reflection and healing.” This includes conceiving user-friendly digital content for medical students and practitioners generally, and in specific areas of medicine. One of the important lessons of the last few weeks has been that, like much of the world, we are woefully under-resourced when it comes to digital capabilities. Healthcare professionals struggle to find time for visiting the museum under normal circumstances, much less during a crisis. Developing opportunities for remote art experiences is, and will remain, a crucial objective. 

I am beginning conversations with museum educators around the country who, like myself, have been working with the medical community within their own galleries — people I know are dedicated to their practice even in a time when museums are folding, and staff are being furloughed or laid off. Many of these conversations have been focused on how museums and educators will need to work with mental health professionals and specialists in post-traumatic stress disorder, to better understand how we can be present for those recovering from sustained trauma after the worst is over. That future will come and we must be ready for it. 

A class of occupational therapy students from Rush Medical College at the Art Institute of Chicago (image courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago, photo by Aidan Fitzpatrick)

Last fall I spent several weeks leading gallery sessions for a group of first-year medical students enrolled in Dr. Jay Behel’s year-long course in medicine and humanities. A few days ago, in the midst of Behel’s hospital work, with the class scattered to their quarantines, he invited me to join a virtual conversation about medicine and literature. We laughed and shared poems that had been recent sources of comfort. One student played a song he’d been listening to. We smiled and nodded along, confined to the geometry of the gridded Zoom interface. It was an hour of brightness for people struggling in too many ways, determined to show up and talk about art. 

Not long ago, after a gallery session for their occupational therapy class, a medical student shared an anonymous reflection on what they had learned: “I think there’s value in recognizing that nothing is usually as it looks at first. There are many details that come out the more time you spend, just as there is with patients. We should take the time: care to learn about the people we treat, the various facets that make them who they are, listen to how their perspectives might differ from our own. It’s a great lesson in perspective, communication, acceptance, and analysis.” These concepts matter, and they are only the beginning of what is possible. I am compelled by a sense of civic responsibility to aid those, like this student, whose practice touches people in need, whether or not the world is watching. Engagement with art may seem a frivolous way to do so. But when it is unleashed to act as a conduit for connection and wellness, art remains as powerful a force as ever. 

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