The installation of art programs in hospitals is not only a new and evolving concept, but also an expensive one with only incremental amounts of research. Though studies show that views to the outdoors, soothing and calming colors, and the presence of nature and art all benefit patients, the application of these programs still varies drastically. That's why, for the Chili's Care Center at St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, John Curran, director of the St. Jude Design and Construction department, sought out Memphis-based Artimpact, and specifically Claudio Pérez-León, to design and implement the artwork program for the massive project.

“When I bring [Pérez-León] in, I know there will be a solution and I know he will be able to present it in an architectural schematic: design, design development, final drawings, production,” says Curran. “He knows the process that people go through to bring a building to reality. If I was going to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars and the outcome might be failure, I wouldn't even try. I don't know how many people that are out there creating that internal soul process like he is.”

Pérez-León, president and founder of Artimpact, was recruited to create an art program in the 340,000 square feet of the Chili's Care Center. His vision encompassed the mantra of St. Jude Children's Hospital while including the input and artwork of local children, artists, and patients. The result: a comprehensive art program including 615 original pieces of art, one third of which are child-made, with the rest coming from a handful of local artists.

Most important for Pérez-León, however, was conveying the hospital's message through the various pieces of art. “St. Jude's culture is defined by its attitude of service and identification with the children, so the art program needed to be friendly and uplifting,” says Pérez-León. “When you have people that are suffering because they are ill, and their relatives come to a facility, they need to be comforted, entertained, and supported. The place needs to be special so that the mind doesn't drift into dark places, but rather hopeful ones.”

Curran can see this happening on a daily basis at the hospital. Noting that many of the children at the center are pediatric oncology patients going through incredibly stressful times and procedures, Curran believes that, aside from being aesthetically pleasing, the artwork is having a clinical effect, as well. “Children have to sit still for a procedure, and sometimes they have to sit still for a pretty long time,” notes Curran. “The way people have done that in the past is to anesthetize them. The number of anesthetized patients for these procedures has fallen way off and a lot of people are attributing that to the fact that they are very calm. They're very at peace when they go into a room to have a procedure and are more able to sit still on their own. Not anesthetizing a patient is a huge thing, not just from the cost of doing it but from the risk of doing it.”

This reaction seems somewhat counterintuitive given the wonderland-like setting of the center. With picture frames made to look like candy—clear Plexiglas, painting from the back to give it a candy-like gleam—and a reception desk that resembles a sailboat, you would think the children would become excitable. But Pérez-León sees this energy as a positive. “Every once in a while you see children standing, identifying with a piece or art, or talking to their siblings and friends, acting out the piece that they've seen,” says Pérez-León. “There are dogs flying or monkeys, and kids are reacting to the painting. Overall, it's a very happy and fortunate experience.”

Though these absurdist paintings might seem off-putting to some, the children are truly connecting with them. This is natural because not only were they the inspiration for the project, they also supplied the groundwork for the whole thing. As Curran notes, the children had finished their paintings before the local artists even started working. When the artists began, they were able to survey what the children had already produced and create their own artwork based on the children's.

Curran stresses though, that the artists were open to do as they pleased. “We didn't tell anyone that they had to change their style,” he says. “Their styles are vastly different. That helps everybody find something that appeals to them.”

Pérez-León echoes this sentiment, but he wanted to make sure that it was the children who felt free to express themselves however they chose. “We wanted to avoid the situation where they felt they were being used for the project,” says Pérez-León. “We wanted them to participate freely, as it came from them, not on the expectation of a deadline. We use what they had done but there was no drive to get a certain number of pieces at a certain time. We thought it would be counterproductive and a bad idea to pressure them.”

It was this freedom and Pérez-León's desire to convey the hospital's motto that really made it all come together. “We wanted to harmonize with both the children and the vision of the architect,” says Pérez-León. The end product speaks for itself. HD

Claudio Pérez-León is president and founder of Artimpact. For more information, e-mail him at

president@artimpact.com. John Curran is director of the St. Jude Design and Construction department. For more information on the hospital, visit

http://www.stjude.org.

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Healthcare Design 2008 November;8(11):82-83