Beyond flowers and puppies: Cancer hospital lines its walls with museum-quality art

Pulse of Longwood takes you inside one of the nation’s largest hubs of hospitals and biomedical research.

The painting was stark: an empty chair by an open doorway.

Jane Mayer, chair of the art committee at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, studied it. Was it uplifting enough to hang where patients would see it, she asked aloud.

“No,” declared Brian Zink, an art installer. Mayer agreed. The painting would go in a staff room, out of patients’ sight.

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Mayer has guided delicate deliberations like that for 15 years, as she has strived to enliven sterile hospital rooms with art that’s more sophisticated than posters of puppies and flowers — but that doesn’t upset patients.

It’s a debate that less wealthy hospitals may only wish they could have.

Dana-Farber has amassed enough top-of-the-line art to rival a museum, thanks to Mayer’s connections in the art world, the work of a dedicated art team, and the support of well-heeled donors.

Patients showing up for chemotherapy appointments can walk past Andy Warhol’s “Souper Dress,” prints by Sol LeWitt and Roy Lichtenstein, a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, video art, and even a framed tutu. All told, Dana-Farber has 1,500 pieces of art on its main campus in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area and its satellite sites, according to art program administrator Elaine Tinetti.

Mayer, who secures many of the donations, said her goal is to “to put art wherever patients are going to travel” — every waiting room, exam room, corridor, lab, and blood-drawing station. She said she does it for the therapeutic value: Patients tell her the art reduces stress and anxiety.

Patients and staff can even pick up a museum-style audio guide to the collection at the front desk. But don’t try walking in off the street for a tour: The collection is not open to the public, except online.

Mayer said people sometimes ask, “Why is the Dana-Farber spending money on art when they could be curing cancer?”

Her answer: The art committee she chairs — which includes patients and staff and is overseen by the philanthropic group Friends of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute — buys some pieces for the hospital and manages the collection. (She wouldn’t disclose the budget.)

But about 65 percent of the artwork has been donated, often from a grateful patient or a private collector. The painting of the empty chair, for instance, was one of 49 pieces of art donated anonymously by a family foundation.

“When they hear what our mission is, and they hear the level of quality of collection, they then want to be identified with that,” she said. “I’ve never approached anyone for money. I don’t need to.”

She does, however, approach artists for their work — artists like Harry Benson, who served as the Beatles’s official photographer. Mayer got connected to Benson’s wife through a friend. She went to the Bensons’ New York City home and picked up three photos — one of which shows the pop stars getting knocked down like dominoes by Muhammad Ali. When the Bensons heard the art would primarily be seen by cancer patients, Mayer said, they gave away the third print for free.

Kayana Szymczak for STATArt program administrator Elaine Tinetti (left) and Mayer put away old art to make way for newer pieces.

Another time, after a friend’s introduction, Mayer found herself visiting the Upper West Side apartment of the French artist Françoise Gilot, Pablo Picasso’s one-time lover and artistic muse. Mayer asked if Gilot would be interested in donating one of her own works. Gilot, who was in her 80s at the time, laid out four pieces. Mayer chose a print of a bouquet of flowers, which Gilot offered her on the spot.

Mayer ran to the post office to get a poster tube, and hopped on the train with the new donation.

“It’s unbelievable and fun,” Mayer said of her art-seeking adventures.

Mayer said when she started her artistic mission, she worked within more conservative confines. She steered away from images with lots of red, because it reminds patients of the dreaded chemotherapy drug Doxorubicin, which is nicknamed the “red devil” for its color and its tendency to turn urine red.

With that in mind, she paused when she came across Warhol’s “Souper Dress,” made of red Campbell’s soup labels, in a Newbury Street gallery. But the committee loved it, she said: “Soup is nurturing.” She bought the dress and donated it to the hospital herself.

Only once has a patient asked Dana-Farber to take down a work of art, Mayer said. The painting had some words to the effect of “getting better,” which the patient felt was a coercive message.

Mayer said she was surprised by that reaction. But the hospital took it down. And she learned a lesson: Don’t buy art with words in it. “You never really know how a patient is going to take that in.”

The art committee, which vets each acquisition, has become more daring in its selection as time passes, Mayer said on a recent tour of the Dana-Farber’s Yawkey Center building. She pointed to a painting by Richard Serra — a turbulent spiral of black paint.

“We never would have approved that originally,” Mayer said. But the art committee bought it two years ago and found that patients actually like it — it reminds them of a Slinky.

Kayana Szymczak for STATTinetti mounts a small panel with credit information about a new piece of art that was just installed in the laboratory services department.

In the past 15 years, the arts committee has vetoed a few pieces — including one that had big letters spelling out “hopeful,” and another that was suggestive of a breast, said Lydia Lopoukhine, a Boston-based art adviser whom Dana-Farber hired to guide the art selection. But most get a resounding approval.

Erin Cummings, a patient on the hospital’s art committee, has enthusiastically welcomed the paintings and sculptures. She knows what the alternative is: At 15, in the 1970s, Cummings spent a whole month on a pediatric ward in New Jersey, undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“The entire floor was murals of Disney characters,” she recalled. “I just remember thinking, ‘I can’t look at Mickey Mouse one more time.’”

At age 16, Cummings got chemotherapy treatments in a hospital emergency ward.

“There was certainly no art,” she recalled. “There was the lady with flatulence next to you.”

By contrast, Dana-Farber’s pediatric wing, run in conjunction with Boston Children’s Hospital, welcomes kids with futuristic holograms.

Cummings said when patients see the art, they get the feeling, “OK, there’s something else there besides the needle in my arm.”

Other hospitals have also become “more sensitive to the need for art in their environment,” said Lopoukhine. She said she has worked on several dozen hospital art collections, including one at the cancer center at Dana-Farber’s cross-town rival, Massachusetts General Hospital.

Across the country, high-end hospitals like the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles have amassed notable collections. Cedars-Sinai has more than 4,000 original works, including large sculptures in public courtyards.

But not all hospitals are that fortunate. Lopoukhine is currently working with MaineGeneral Medical Center to find art for a new hospital in Augusta. Due to budget constraints, she said, the hospital is focusing on local artists: “It’s certainly not the grand scale of the Farber.”

“I don’t know of any other hospital in this area that is as serious” as Dana-Farber in cultivating a collection, she said.

Dana-Farber’s art evangelist didn’t start out in that field: A trained social worker, Mayer spent nearly 30 years at a different Longwood hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where she directed the social work department. She’s now a gallery instructor and board member at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Her daughter Erica and husband Robert are both oncologists at Dana-Farber.

As she oversaw the installation of a dozen paintings in blood-drawing rooms one recent evening, Mayer showed no signs of slowing down.

“There’s lots and lots of still-empty walls,” she said.

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