Public Media Arts Hub

Art and medicine intersect in New York City hospitals


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: It's one of the largest public art collections in the country, and it's not where you might expect to see it. Artwork in New York hospitals aims to heal patients and healers.

Jeffrey Brown continues his occasional look at the intersection of art and health for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: A playful, vibrant mural painted in 1986 by Keith Haring, the famed artist of the 1980s pop and graffiti scene. His work is typically found in museums, galleries, and at auction, valued into the millions.

But there it is in the busy lobby of Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. On a wall outside, in this loud, crowded Bed-Stuy neighborhood, a new mural for pandemic times called Through Healing, We Unite.

Imani Shanklin Roberts, Artist: This is for health workers, but, also, it's about bridging the gap between health workers and the community at large.

Jeffrey Brown: It was designed by contemporary artist Imani Shanklin Roberts, working with hospital staff and patients for ideas, even the painting.

Imani Shanklin Roberts: Public art is about civic engagement. It exists on a very busy avenue, and people are walking back and forth passively or actively engaging with the work. So it becomes larger than me. It becomes larger than the hospital. It really is about bridging people together.

Jeffrey Brown: Roberts' mural is now part of one of the more extraordinary and unexpected art collections in the country, the more than 3,000 works owned and curated by New York City's Health and Hospitals, the nation's largest municipal public hospital system, works obtained through donations by philanthropists, foundations, and the artists themselves, plus a New York City tax incentive program to fund public art.

In fact, there's now a renaissance of mural-making, some 26 new works at hospitals throughout the city, with more coming. It's the largest such project since the 1930s, continuing a rich history that can still be seen at places like Harlem Hospital, where murals from the Federal Art Project, part of Franklin Roosevelt's WPA program, have been restored and displayed in a museum-like mural pavilion.

Art historian and Whitney Museum curator Barbara Haskell.

Barbara Haskell, Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art: One purpose was to put people to work.

Jeffrey Brown: It's very simple, put people to work.

Barbara Haskell: Very simple. As one of his administrators said, artists have to eat like everyone else.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Barbara Haskell: But there was another message, another idea, that art could be part of everyday life, and that through art, it could shore up the sort of self-resolve of America.

Jeffrey Brown: And you could translate that idea into a hospital context?

Barbara Haskell: Yes. So the idea that modern medicine was something that would prevent and help cure diseases.

Jeffrey Brown: In that era, Haskell says, many patients and staff even lived in the hospitals for long periods of time. And the murals were often immersive, taking up whole walls and spaces, especially to cheer up children in long-term care.

The murals at Harlem Hospital were also important in another way, for capturing Black life by Black artists, a cycle of works by Vertis Hayes, others by Charles Alston. Some of the early sketches for these murals were rejected by the hospital administration at the time for focusing too much on so-called Negro subject matter.

But, after protests, the artists, like Georgette Seabrooke, largely prevailed.

Barbara Haskell: This was in a nurse's recreation room, and it gave a sense that life was happening.

Jeffrey Brown: Seabrooke's 1937 painting is titled Recreation in Harlem.

A Black woman artist at this time...

Barbara Haskell: Yes, living in Harlem.

Jeffrey Brown: ... would not have had many opportunities?

Barbara Haskell: That's right. And the WPA itself didn't hire many Black artists. So the Harlem Hospital was really a launch for a lot of these artists.

Larissa Trinder, Art in Medicine Program Senior Director, Health and Hospitals: So this is our storage unit for some of our most significant pieces in the collection.

Jeffrey Brown: In a nondescript space in a downtown office building, Larissa Trinder, who heads the Arts in Medicine Program for the hospital system, showed us works, many by leading artists, such as Andy Warhol, Lee Krasner, and Sam Gilliam, waiting to be placed on hospital walls.

Larissa Trinder: So, these are from the 1930s.

Jeffrey Brown: Even still under wraps, restored paintings from a series on "Alice in Wonderland" in New York that once adorned a children's ward, fell into disrepair, and will soon be publicly shown again after some 40 years.

Larissa Trinder: A lot of our pieces are not framed. They're waiting to be framed and placed in our facilities. We store them in these bins here.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Larissa Trinder: So, for example...

Jeffrey Brown: Well, there's a famous name.

Larissa Trinder: There's a famous name.

Jeffrey Brown: Calder.

Larissa Trinder: This is Alexander Calder.

Jeffrey Brown: An important focus now, especially in the pandemic, with art to help caregivers, not only to beautify their surroundings, but in sessions to help heal the healers themselves.

Larissa Trinder: He have a high-res image that's projected.

Jeffrey Brown: This collage by David Hammons, for example, is used in a program called Heart of Medicine, art as therapy, in which teams of health workers first talk about the painting, as a way into their own deeper feelings, fears and frustrations on the job.

Larissa Trinder: What would happen is, you would sit there and you would say, what do you see when you see this? I saw a man and a woman in a loving embrace. But other people would say, oh, my gosh, I see he's angry, or she's this.

And people were bringing their own kinds of emotions and backgrounds into this piece.

Judith Cutchin, Head Nurse, Woodhull Hospital: It is always busy.

Jeffrey Brown: Judith Cutchin, head nurse of ambulatory care at Woodhull Hospital, takes pride in working at a public facility, giving top care to all in need, regardless of their ability to pay. But the last few years have been traumatic.

Judith Cutchin: We lost a great deal of staff. We lost a great deal of our beloved patients. And it's life-changing.

Jeffrey Brown: Art in and on the building, she says, has helped. And when artist Imani Shanklin Roberts sought ideas from the staff for her mural project, Cutchin was eager to join in.

Judith Cutchin: It was not to beautify the building. It is to engage our patients, engage our staff, the families, the community in this project.

That mural, it means a lot. It really means a lot to me, because it just signifies what we do here, who we have in this building and why we are here.

Jeffrey Brown: Were you involved in actually painting?


Judith Cutchin: I can't paint.

Jeffrey Brown: You can't paint?


Judith Cutchin: Yes. But I love art. We were able to say, OK, so, let's say we are going to paint that orange. No, we don't want that orange. Then we come to a consensus, let's make it yellow. Yes. Yes.

Oh, let's put the patient on the side. OK. So, I felt like -- I felt like the artist.


Dr. Eric Wei, Health and Hospitals: You are awestruck by the beauty of these murals.

Jeffrey Brown: This is exactly what Dr. Eric Wei hopes for. Wei is a top administrator for New York City Health and Hospitals, but also continues to work as an emergency medicine physician on the front lines.

What is it that you and other health care workers need most that the art might provide?

Dr. Eric Wei: The figuratively having a full tank, and that full tank of empathy, that full tank of having a clear mind, not being distracted, not being stressed, not being burnt out. And so we need to leverage everything that we have. And art is so powerful. We need to use this powerful tool to heal our healers.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.