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A Sense Of Place: Art Connects Healthcare To Community

March 2, 2016

IIDA members reflect on how art plays a key role in healing and why it’s not only important for patients and their families, but also for the public at large.

Cutting-edge, evidence-based healthcare design may sound sterile and dominated by technology, but art continues to play an increasingly important role in these environments. Positive patient outcomes—such as stress relief, faster recovery times, and a reduced need for pain medications—have been well-documented, but the benefits of including art and artisanal objects in healthcare extend beyond.

By connecting communities, supporting local artists, creating healing environments, and celebrating identity, art is often used by healthcare designers to fulfill many goals for multiple populations while still satisfying the complex design needs of healthcare spaces.

“Healthcare facilities must house technology, prevent the spread of infection, and accommodate all of the people who are populating that space, which often encompasses more than patients, their families, and employees,” said Cheryl S. Durst, executive vice president and CEO of IIDA. “Art is a counterpoint to the complexity of healthcare design. Incorporating art and artisanal pieces into healthcare environments humanizes the experience, creates a sense of calm, and presents an opportunity to welcome others into these spaces.”

Edwin Beltran, design principal in the Columbus office of NBBJ and member of the IIDA International Board of Directors, agrees: “In a world dominated by digital media stimuli, we see an increased need for sensorial stimuli that appeals to the human need for touch and connection to nature, both of which have been shown to reduce stress. Handcrafted materials offer opportunities to create environments that appeal to multiple senses by weaving sight, touch, and sound together. Combined, these materials connect us back to our human nature, which is of particular importance in healthcare.

Engaging the Community

Healthcare facilities are increasingly designed to shed the identity of being a place for those who are ailing; instead, these environments are built to be gathering places by providing programming for the public as well as event spaces and auditoriums that can be used for various community purposes.

“Healthcare is not only about illness, it’s about wellness. People go because they are sick, but also because they want to be healthy,” said Debra Levin, president and CEO of the Center for Health Design. “Many hospitals now have community rooms that the public is invited to use, so the goal is to create spaces that the community wants to be a part of.”

Using local artwork offers the community an opportunity to be involved with a healthcare project and provides an incentive to visit or use the facility for purposes unrelated to illness.

“You can support a local art community and also bring one together,” said Levin. “If you find local artists, they can create interesting pieces that have a sense and feel of the area. It’s a great way to bring the community together for a new facility, raise funds, and garner support for a project.”

According to Jocelyn Stroupe, principal of Cannon Design, it’s common for healthcare designers to tap local artists. In a recent project for an ambulatory care facility at the University of Minnesota, the design team put out a call.

“The range of art was from photography to sculpture and suspended pieces. What was interesting was that members of that community could walk through the facility and recognize names of the artists or subject matter from the area,” said Stroupe. “It provided people in that space with the ability to feel more connected, another sense of comfort in a healthcare environment.”

Celebrating Identity

Art in healthcare spaces can strengthen patients’ connection to individual identity and affiliation with a larger group, creating a sense of pride and evoking feelings of familiarity and control.


The Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System, scheduled to open in late 2016 and designed by NBBJ in collaboration with Eskew+Dumez+Ripple and Rozas Ward Architects, replaced the facility destroyed by Hurricane Katrina over a decade earlier. Designers of the 1.7 million-square-foot facility made identity a key component of the facility from plaster feature walls that display national seals to patterns in custom-designed carpets and privacy curtains that artfully intertwine military imagery with iconic New Orleans design. “The Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System is a representation of national and local pride and honors the service and sacrifice of our veterans,” said Beltran.
For patients living in Alzheimer’s care facilities, art is a critical aspect of the “memory boxes” at the entrances of patients’ rooms. “Memory boxes are effective in bringing positive memories back for patients in Alzheimer’s care. It might be photographs or special objects that represent that person and their identity,” said Mindy Graves-Ajami, principal of Metaform Design Studio, Inc. “These people are in their most vulnerable state, and whatever you can do to make the experience more calming or familiar, you do it.”     

Healing Hospitality

For patients and their families, art is linked to positive patient outcomes both physically and psychologically and has the power to turn sterile and potentially nerve-racking experiences into less frightening ones for patients and their families. But connecting that artwork back to the community can have an even stronger effect by turning a hospitality-like environment into something more familiar and closer to home.
“We like to work with local artists who understand the surroundings and can provide us with art to imbed into the architecture of a space that can distract patients or families with a memory or familiarity,” said Stroupe.

The design of the new Kettering Health Network Cancer Center in Dayton, Ohio, employs this approach. “We’re bringing in more pattern and texture than you typically see in healthcare facilities and there are more decorative features,” said Stroupe. “One of the patients is an artist who creates glass flowers, which have become an iconic element in their current center. We’re working to incorporate this artist because these flowers have such a positive, strong, and familiar connection for the hospital for patients and employees.”

The ultimate goal of using art in these spaces? To create a more human-centered experience of healthcare.

“In this new healthcare era, designers are responsible for developing solutions that provide value and create inspiring environments conducive to healing,” said Beltran. “Art is just one of the many tools we use to achieve this mandate.”

Louisa Fitzgerald is the senior writer and editor at IIDA, which can be reached at 1-888-799-4432, [email protected], or www.iida.org.

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