USING ART TO HEAL
JEFF HEINRICH REPORTS,
For years, the walls of the Portage mother-and-child centre, a home for recovering drug addicts and their young children in southwest Montreal, used to be bare.
Now, as the centre celebrates its 10th anniversary, the place looks like an art gallery, with 80 donated works valued at $50,000 on permanent display.
The art comes courtesy of Art for Healing, a non-profit organization that since 2002 has installed 6,500 art works in health institutions across Canada.
Photographs, paintings, etchings, watercolours, sketches, reproductions – anything from the wide world of art is the charity’s stock-in-trade. It’s also win-win for everyone involved. Artists and private collectors donate their work and get a tax writeoff for its appraised value. The hospital, clinic or social-service agency spruces up its decor. And patients get a little sunshine in their life. It’s a venture that started from nothing. “We wanted to respond to the lack of stimulation in the hospital system – hospitals just weren’t addressing the issue,” recalled Earl Pinchuk, who developed the concept with his husband, Gary Blair.
“This was back in 2001. Working in the art world in Montreal, I was visiting a lot of artists’ studios and seeing hundreds of pieces sitting around doing nothing.
“And three times a week, I’d be up to the Vic, where a friend of ours was dying, and see nothing on the walls; they were just totally blank. That’s when we started to brainstorm.
“There was all this art in the city, and lots of space in hospitals to put it. But these institutions had so much to do already. What was needed was an organization to find the art and bring it to them.”
Both he and Blair branched out from their family businesses – Pinchuk in textiles (his family makes comforters), Blair in telecommunications (pagers and call centres) – to make their art project work.
Art for Healing Foundation has prospered ever since.
Its thousands of works are now on display in hospitals and other institutions in health-care and social services in Montreal, Laval, St. Jérôme, Toronto, Brantford, Vancouver and St. John’s.
One of the hospitals, Maisonneuve-rosemont, boasts the best art collection of any hospital in Canada: more than 500 pieces by such luminaries of Quebec modern art as Françoise Sullivan, Marcel Barbeau, Geneviève Cadieux and Marc Séguin.
“Before we came along, art had always been trickling into hospitals, Pinchuk recalled. “Somebody would call up the hospital’s foundation, say they have a couple of paintings to donate, and over they’d go.
“We wanted to do things differently, we wanted to create installations. So we launched the idea in 2002, only with reproductions at first – the Children’s Hospital were the first to agree – and we never stopped.”
Unlike other non-profit ventures like the Quebec Arts and Crafts Foundation’s Artothèque, which loans paintings out for a fee, the works Pinchuk deals in are donated permanently.
At Portage’s family centre in Little Burgundy, home to 25 mothers and 25 children, the new artwork offers a splash of colour that brightens lives.
The 80 works were donated by seven established artists, a collector, a bank, 10 students of Concordia University’s photography department and seven Gazette staff photographers and freelancers. The young mothers love the makeover. “Art puts more life in the place,” said Stephanie (she asked her family name not be used), who spent the winter months at Portage and sat on its residents’ committee.
“We’d been lobbying for changes and improvements to make it more homey,” she said. “It was pretty institutional around here – plain, sterile. We wanted a little more life.”
To that end, Pinchuk showed up with a catalogue of art he thought might work for Portage, and the women – in a highlight of their six-month stay – helped choose.
“We went with anything that moved, that was colourful, photos the kids would like,” Stephanie said, including ones of sports figures taken by Gazette photographers.
Lining the corridors, and inside bedrooms and common rooms and offices, the art “starts conversations, makes people smile, inspires us,” she said.
Portage director Caroline Gélinas likes it, too. She has already talking with Pinchuk about installing paintings at Portage’s big new centre in New Brunswick, which now has very little art in it.
“It’s warmer here now,” she said at the Little Burgundy centre. “It’s more like I’m in my apartment, decorated the way I like it. It’s beautiful, it goes well on the walls, it just give us a new vision of things.”
The artworks complement the art workshops the centre offers its residents and their children, where they paint and draw and make collages, as well as go on outings to museums. Both approaches – viewing and making art – are a kind of therapy that bring people out of their shell and have them participate more in the world around them, Gélinas said. “It’s two sides of the same thing: taking people further.”
Montreal photographer Heidi Hollinger donated three big portraits of herself pregnant, holding her swollen belly. Taken in 2005, they were last shown in the maternity wing of the Jewish General Hospital. A second set – also taken by her photographer friend Melissa Dinel – hangs in Maisonneuve-rosemont Hospital, also courtesy of Art for Healing.
“I’m happy if art can heal,” said Hollinger, best known for her portraits of celebrity Russian politicians in the 1990s. “I believe in the power of photography to transmit emotions and ideas.”
Added Hollinger, who plans to visit Portage to talk about the photos to the young mothers: “Gary and Earl help so many people. I’ve had so much positive feedback about their installations.
“I hope the photos at Portage will help the women there change the course of their life, by refocusing their imaginations, maybe even inspire them to get interested in photography.”
Montreal artist Mel Boyaner, 88, also donated works for the Portage exhibit: five prints he did long ago when he was living and teaching in England. They’d been stored in his basement in St. Lambert.
“When you’re waiting ... art can have a definite calming – even therapeutic – effect.”
Christine Lussier, Maisonneuve-rosemont Hospital
Boyaner has been involved with Art for Healing almost from the beginning.
“I think very, very highly of it,” he said. “It helps the institutions and it helps the artists as well, many of whom are left with an awful lot of surplus art they can’t show.
“By donating it, we also get some sort of tax relief.”
Art can be a risky proposition for some institutions – especially in psychiatry, where who knows what reactions an image on the wall can touch off ?
That’s why Pinchuk has only managed to place two paintings in the institution for male addicts on the floor above the Portage women’s centre – one in a general area, one hidden away in a meeting room.
The “healing” can be a bit of a misnomer, too. Art in palliative care centres, for example, isn’t intended to help people get healthier, it’s to improve their quality of life as they lie dying.
At the Donald Berman Maimonides Geriatric Centre in Côte St. Luc, close to 900 works – paintings and photos, mainly – are on display through all seven floors, often in mini-galleries dedicated to one artist.
They’ve reawakened the spirits of the elderly residents there.
Ann Nagley, development officer of the centre’s foundation, remembers the day a few years ago when she stopped in on an old lady who, normally, never spoke.
A new gallery was being dedicated on her floor that morning, and outside the lady’s door a photo had been hung that evoked such a strong memory she broke her silence.
Part of a series on Montreal Jewish landmarks by Evelyn Gold, the photo showed the entrance to Baron Byng High School on St. Urbain St.
“I said ‘Good morning, how are you?’ – not expecting any response whatsoever,” Nagley recalled. “And this lady looked at the picture and said, ‘I went to Baron Byng.’
“I almost had a heart attack,” said Nagley. “As fate would have it, the one piece that was meaningful to her was right outside her door. Just remembering that day brings chills to my bones and tears to my eyes.”
Other Montreal health-care institutions have taken the Art for Healing plunge in a big way, too.
Maisonneuve-rosemont’s 500-odd pieces are on display in waiting rooms, main corridors, visitors’ areas and the cancer centre, where they can be best seen and protected.
In 2010 the hospital organized a permanent exhibit of 65 works worth a total $65,000 for its nuclear medicine department. Beside big Montreal names like Guido Molinari, famous foreign artists like Stephen Conroy are also represented.
At the time, the new works brought the hospital’s collection of more than 200 artworks to a total value of over $225,000 – a small but much-appreciated chunk of its foundation’s budget.
A catalogue of 55 works from the collection is now under preparation.
“We tried to place the paintings where people can contemplate them and appreciate them,” said Christine Lussier, the hospital’s communications director. “When you’re waiting, for instance, art can have a definite calming – even therapeutic – effect.”
Getting art into public institutions isn’t just a charity affair. It’s official Quebec government policy, part of a new cultural push called Agenda 21 that grew out of UNESCO’S 2005 treaty on cultural diversity.
The goal is to make art more accessible to people, Culture Minister Christine St-pierre said at a ceremony at NotreDame Hospital in mid-march.
“With little money, a lot can be done in culture,” St-pierre said, announcing a $45,000 grant for a new “culture and health” program for the hospitals of Centre hospitalier de l’université de Montréal.
First result: a small exhibit of photographs by Gabor Szilasi and Michel Campeau in two adjacent corridors in a wing of Notre Dame’s Deschamps pavilion, all curated by Art for Healing.
On the walls of the CHUM’S other hospitals, St. Luc and Hôtel Dieu, hang works by Jean Paul Lemieux, Jacques Hurtubise, Roland Giguère and other Quebec artists – again, thanks to Art for Healing.
When the CHUM consolidates into the new hospital it’s building on the edge of Old Montreal in 2016, Art for Healing will also be well-positioned to influence its interior design: Pinchuk was named to the CHUM’S board of directors in February.
“Hospitals don’t have to be just places of morbidity and death, but rather, places that have a definite link to the city, ” CHUM director-general Christian Paire said at the ceremony at Notre-dame in March.
“To do that, there has to be a trilogy at play: artists and health professionals and associations working in common. Ultimately, it’s for the benefit of patients, by making art available to everyone.”
To Pinchuk, the 10 years of effort have been worth it. “I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to lift up people’s spirits,” he said. “There’s a lack of regard for the visual arts generally in our society; art is usually at the bottom of the ladder. But, in fact, art humanizes our lives.
“We shouldn’t neglect it.” For more on the Art for Healing Founda
tion, go to artforhealingfoundation.org.