Art lifts patients’ spirits, promotes healing, says Gifts of Art director

By Michael Harrison
Medical Center Public Relations

A patient once wrote in a letter that she became “especially unglued” before undergoing a heart catheterization procedure.

“But I’ll tell you something,” she continued. “The artwork in the hospital somehow cheered me up—it reached my spirit and reassured me of the positive side of life even in the midst of despair.”

Such comments are sweet music to the ears of Gary G. Smith, director of the

U-M Hospitals’ Gifts of Art program. Gifts of Art provides free arts events and exhibits for patients, their families and visitors at the hospital complex. He clings tightly to his belief that there is a soothing, even healing benefit of art, and feels strongly that the state of mind affects physical symptoms.

“Art is sometimes perceived as a frivolity; people don’t understand the clinical value. There’s a difference between curing and healing that you can’t confuse. We cure diseases, but your reaction to the disease is where healing takes place,” he says.

Research by the late Norman Cousins, former editor of the Saturday Review and author of the best-selling books Anatomy of an Illness and Head First: The Biology of Hope, showed that imbalances in the endocrine system could be caused by negative emotions. Turning to humor therapy, Cousins discovered that generating more positive emotions had an analgesic effect during his recovery from a life-threatening spine disease. His philosophy was that freeing the body of negative emotions may help the healing process. Art, he said, aids that process. “Art … (lights) up the imagination … it is a way of imparting meaning to life and life to meaning.”

That same philosophy holds true for Gifts of Art, one of only a few such programs nationwide. Since its birth in 1987, Gifts of Art has helped provide a calming and comforting hospital environment for patients and visitors.

—The Art Cart is a lending library of prints and posters from which patients can select new art for their rooms each week.

—The Visual Arts Program features two- and three-dimensional art exhibits in nine gallery areas of the U-M Hospitals. The exhibits include ceramics, pottery, jewelry, sculpture, woodworks and watercolors and change every six weeks.

—The Performing Arts Series offers weekly live music, dance, theater and artists’ demonstrations. Performances take place in the lobbies or in the outdoor courtyard that separates University Hospital and C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. They are videotaped for broadcast to patient rooms and occasionally are held on patient floors.

In all, the Gifts of Art program includes more than 800 pieces of original art, 4,500 photographic reproductions and more than 550 prints and posters.

Smith says that hospitals are witnessing a renaissance in art. But the healing role of the arts is not new. Even hospitals in 5th-century Greece had musicians, poets and theatrical presentations.

Smith says the U-M program’s strongest barometer of success is the patients’ responses. One example stands out most in his mind.

“One day, Our Lady Madrigal Singers were performing Christmas carols in individual patients’ rooms,” Smith says. “They entered the room of a man who had not spoken to anyone in six months. At the end of the first carol, he asked his daughter to help him sit up so he could see the singers. At the end of the second carol he asked her to help him to a wheelchair. As the singers finished the third carol, he asked to be wheeled down the hall so he could hear more.”


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