Artists have long sought ways around the so-called White Cube: the generic, white-washed, and resolutely institutional space of the museum or art gallery. To critique the austerity of art world exhibition spaces has become cliché; the past two decades have witnessed those same institutions responding to artist’s criticisms with initiatives to be more flexible, interactive, and discursive. Even though the art world’s institutional landscape has shifted considerably since the term “white cube” was coined by the critic Brian O’Doherty in the 1976, museums and galleries remain spaces devoted to the display of art, the mere fact of which conditions both the expectations and behaviors of their visitors. But how do those expectations and behaviors change when we encounter art outside of institutions devoted to art’s display? Does art’s meaning shift in response to altered contexts?
Such questions are vital in thinking about the role art plays in medicine. On the surface, a hospital may not seem so different from the modernist white cube. Typically austere and literally sterile, medical institutions have none of the grit we might associate with the ad-hoc underground spaces that have functioned as alternatives to museums and galleries since the 1970s. And yet a hospital might provide an environment just as radical for showing art, in that it fulfills a long-expressed desire by artists to reach an audience beyond the seasoned art world insider, and at base, to expand the parameters of what art can do. Enter the Cleveland Clinic’s Art Program.
Established in 2006, the program is responsible for acquiring, curating, installing, and maintaining the Clinic’s collection of contemporary art, which now exceeds 5,400 works, including several site-specific commissions. Think of “hospital art” and you might picture neutered landscapes and still lifes by anonymous commercial artists. By contrast, the Cleveland Clinic’s team of curators have built a collection that features painting, prints, works on paper, video, and sculpture and other mixed media by artists with both local and global renown, including Catherine Opie, Vik Muniz, Barry Underwood, Jaume Plensa, Nam June Paik, and Sarah Morris, among others.
Executive Director and Curator Joanne Cohen and Curators Jennifer Finkel and Bellamy Printz run a patient-centered curatorial practice, which means that their goals revolve foremost around the Clinic’s patient population, as well as patient family members and Clinic employees. Crucially, this population comes to the Clinic for reasons that likely have nothing to do with art. Unlike the purposeful museum visitor, primed for leisurely looking and thinking, the patient or family member happens upon art in an environment that may be tinged with crisis, stress, or loss. Such an intense environment requires the curators to carefully negotiate contemporary art’s potential to challenge with its power to inspire.
On the effects of the Clinic’s art on the public, Bellamy Printz explains, “The expectation for patients and visitors who come here is that they won’t have anything to divert them, to engage with. Their focus is on the patient or on themselves, but a piece of art can present an opportunity for someone to step outside of that experience, to step outside of that internal space.” Joanne Cohen continues, “It’s life affirming…They’re in this moment of crisis…and there’s suddenly something that takes them and makes them realize that it’s but a small cog in the big picture, and that there’s a whole other world out there, and that’s really cathartic and helpful.”
In an institution so rife with intense and potentially unpleasant experiences, the transportative power of art is all the more crucial to the visitor’s experience. This is not to say that the art is divorced from the reality of the Clinic, or that the act of looking is reduced to mere escapism or passing time. Quite the opposite: the medical context often brings out new or latent meanings in the works, which can then serve as catalysts for difficult yet important conversations.
Take Swiss artist Uwe Wittwer’s watercolor Summer Day (2008), for example, in which a young boy sits in rowboat opposite two paradoxically absent figures, visible only as outlines and negative space. Perhaps specters of memory, the figures imbue the image with a palpable sense of loss. The hospital setting inflects Summer Day with valences that might not be apparent in a museum setting, a potent reminder that context is never neutral. And that’s a good thing: Wittwer’s work, among others, has generated productive questions about the role of art in a healthcare facility. As curator Jennifer Finkel recalls, “We’ve had some really interesting questions in front of that piece; some people will say ‘I absolutely can’t believe you have this in a hospital,’ while others will say ‘this absolutely should be in a hospital.’ And those are the kinds of conversations we should be having, because this is life or death. If you can’t talk about that here, where can you?”
Paula Burleigh is a PhD Candidate in the Art History department at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is a faculty member at Bard High School Early College and a frequent lecturer at the Whitney Museum of American Art. View more articles by Paula Burleigh.