The Art of the War on germs

by Cyndie Lack, (BFA, MAC)

Readers of this blog are already convinced by the emotive power of visual art. While CVPAG is dedicated to bringing a gallery facility to the island, we support public art in any environment. In light of the pandemic, it is timely to consider the solace art may bring to those in the institutional setting of a hospital. In this article I will also comment on the possible impact of infection control measures on hospital art collections.

As a volunteer for the CDHF (Cowichan and District Hospital Foundation), I undertook an inventory of art and related objects on display at CDH 2017-2019. The objects vary widely in quality and type and include: paintings, drawings, prints, calligraphy, photographs, plaques and display panels, stained glass, needlework, mixed media, reproductions, 3-D objects and relief panels. There is no curation, in fact there is no acknowledged collection per se; the hospital walls and corridors have been gradually populated, and many works are commemorative donations.

(click on the images above to open in a new window)

The striking clay and mosaic relief sculpture opposite the hospital chapel was my personal inspiration for the inventory project. To mark CDH’s 60th anniversary, “Earth, Sea, and Sky” (1992) [above, left] was created by students of Cowichan Secondary School under the guidance of local artist-instructor Lynda Faulks and her colleague Craig Campbell. The rich and complex surfaces of plant and animal forms evoke fossils magically sprung to life. Glenn Spicer’s mastery of stained glass [above, right] is evident in several dazzling installations in the Chapel and main corridor. I was also motivated by my previous work treating art in hospital collections, and a firsthand look at the pacific northwest contemporary art collection at the University of Washington Medical Center.

While conducting the CDH inventory, captured in spreadsheet data and photographic documentation, staff and visitors often stopped to chat about their favourite artwork and its personal significance. The expectation of being able to repeatedly “visit” these works was reported. Even before the pandemic, however, infection control measures were being introduced restricting displayed images to those behind glass in metal picture frames. This dramatically limits the size and type of visual art that could be shown in the new hospital facility.

None of my hospital art administrator contacts report the same narrow-minded measures. When one considers the number of unscreened visitors normally entering a hospital, not to mention the preponderance of materials unable to withstand ship deck swabbing, why target art? Coronavirus, for example, survives longer on most metallic surfaces than more porous surfaces. While I have no expertise in medical matters, I question the efficacy of the proposed restrictions, and wonder if this is yet another bureaucratic measure serving appearance more than reality.

Contemporary art has reached new heights of diversity in scale, subject matter and form. Exciting possibilities for hospital settings include installations utilizing light, sound, kinetics, and video. Art installed out of reach of passersby and/or composed of highly durable, architectural materials are other options. Vitrines would protect more traditional sculptures and barriers of acrylic glazing could be used for works such as “Earth, Sea, and Sky” (newer acrylic glazing products have superior scratch resistance, are anti-static, and can block harmful ultraviolet radiation). New glazing fabrication methods even allow for seamless, oversize barriers. There is a reciprocal relationship between protection of human health and practical measures designed to protect original artworks as valuable assets of cultural property.

Art councils that fund public art commissions routinely assess safety and durability and would be invaluable advisory partners. Numerous established hospital art collections and conservation agencies such as the Canadian Conservation Institute have a wealth of knowledge to share. Far from the severe restrictions currently envisioned, I believe comprehensive hospital art programs that include permanent gallery spaces should be mandated for all new medical facilities on Vancouver Island. Innovative partnerships between art and medicine have long been standard fare; the benefits of engaging visual art for human physical and mental health are well-known.

The sad alternative of banal framed images is suitably condemned in this article with the question: “Are designers hoping to bore germs to death?”

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