Ideas: March 2008 Archives
My first trip to a hospital came after I discovered my arm had a new right angle.
It was 1979. I was five years old. I'd dropped out of a tree and snapped the bones in my right forearm. I don't remember if I was in a lot of pain, but do remember asking my mother if I was going to die.
While the emergency room did a lot for my arm, it did little for my state of mind. The hospital smelled funny. It was gloomy and dingy and strange. I've since forgotten most of the details, but I do recall this: the buzzing of fluorescent lights and the feeling that I was in a place where bad things happened.
I wanted to get out. Soon.
It's a commonplace experience. We get sick, go to the hospital, dread our time there. Hospitals scare us. They're big and impersonal and boring. They force us to focus on things we'd rather ignore: illness, chaos, death.
Plus, they're expensive. Heart-bypass surgery, for instance, requires a long convalescence. The longer it takes, the more it costs.
When the Ashley River Tower, the Medical University of South Carolina's new heart, vascular, and digestive disease hospital, opened on Feb. 4, it got a lot of attention from newspapers around the state, and justifiably so.
It's big -- 641,000 square feet with 156 single-patient rooms, including 32 beds in a state-of-the-art intensive care unit. It's new -- a team of local and international architects designed it to reflect the neighboring urban landscape, with elegant curves echoing Charleston's nautical history. And it has a whopping price tag -- about $400 million, including all the equipment. It's the first of five proposed facilities.
What really got the attention of reporters and editors, though, was the role of visual art in the facility: MUSC amassed one of the largest collections of art by local and regional artists on permanent display -- paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, pottery, and even traditional Lowcountry sweetgrass baskets -- with the rationale that it will help sick people feel better faster.
More than 850 works were purchased with the help of Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. Organizers placed art on every floor, every patient room, and in every waiting area in the hospital believing they would reduce stress and facilitate healing.
It was a no-brainer news story.
Still, I had more questions than answers.
MUSC wanted to showcase the work of local and regional artists, build a facility unmistakably grounded in a distinct place, and support art by educating the public. And, of course, there was the feel-good, New Age-y mantra of artful healing. That all sounds terrific, but why?
I personally believe art helps people, especially sick people and their families. Perhaps, as doctors straightened my crooked arm with a plaster cast, some aesthetic beauty, natural light, and smart interior design would have made my first hospital trip less dreadful for my mother and me.
But hospitals are in the business of medicine, not art. Why spend the time and effort searching, buying, collecting, and presenting hundreds of works of art? Why go to great lengths to launch an intense fund-raising campaign that exclusively targeted private sources?
What's the whole story behind the Ashley River Tower?
It turns out that ART, as MUSC's new tower is called, is among a new breed of hospital popping up around the country. These structures have been shorn of the Bauhaus severity of postwar America, in which hospitals, like the one I went to in 1979, were pretty much big concrete boxes with some windows in the front more suitable for religious ascetics and Spartan warriors than people in need of medical care. Benefitting from 30 years of sociological research and architectural innovation, these new buildings are being conceived with the patient in mind -- more natural light, more natural decor, and, importantly, more art in patient rooms, waiting areas, everywhere.
This is not just about the meeting of art and medicine. Research does indeed show patients benefit from exposure to nature and beauty during recovery. But there's another dimension here, and that is how art is being used in smart and sophisticated ways to help solve major economic and management problems that hospitals face in the 21st century -- soaring health care costs, patient satisfaction, fiercer competition, staff retention, 76 million baby boomers.
As we enter into a new age of building design, hospitals are
increasingly turning to art. The Ashley River Tower has far more than a
nice collection that helps people; medical experts and building
designers are hailing it as a new architectural standard of patient
care and cutting-edge hospitality.
Vasantasena (center, Miriam A. Laube) jests with her servant Madanika (Eileen DeSandre) and her confidant Libertine (Tyrone Wilson). Photo by David Cooper.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival first opened its doors in 1935, when English prof Angus Bowmer ran three performances in a "festival" over the Fourth of July weekend, two of Twelfth Night and one of The Merchant of Venice. WIth a hiatus for WWII, the festival has been running since then. Funny story about the first one, recounted at every Backstage Tour (the backstage tour is most tremendously fun; I've been on, I think, four so far and will go again this year): The city government worried that the Shakespeare plays wouldn't make any money and decided to run a boxing match during the day to make up for projected Shakespeare losses. Ennnh! (Buzzer sound.) The boxing match lost money; the plays made money -- and the plays bailed out the boxing losses.
The OSF runs 11 plays (four Shakespeare and seven by contemporary or "classic" playwrights) a season, in rep, on three stages, with 783 total performances during the February-November runs (not all plays run at all times). There aren't usually boxing matches although, of course, any production of As You Like It contains the Orlando v. Charles wrestling match. Ashland's just off of I-5, 3 hours south of Eugene and about 5-6 hours (your mileage may vary) north of the Bay Area. It's 19 miles from the California border, and most of the OSF's patrons come from Cali (something like 45 percent, with 35-40 percent from Oregon), so it's no surprise that many of the plays (last year's Tracy's Tiger and Distracted and this year's Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, for instance) contain many, many California references. The audiences laugh a lot; Oregonians like me get annoyed but understand. You can see clips and listen to longer info pieces here.
In any case, info dump aside, the OSF has never produced a "non-Western" play. Not as in non-Gunsmoke or something, but as in non-Western-literature play. Until now.
A few weeks ago I took a look at the front page of Arts + Life, our Sunday features section in the Lexington Herald-Leader. There was a story about a double bill of plays by University of Kentucky Theatre, a piece about UK soprano Afton Battle in the national semifinal round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and, inside, a story about a new UK musical and operetta club.
A few nights later, I was in UK's Singletary Center to hear the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra, and I noted that concertmaster Daniel Mason directs UK's string program, principal violist Joseph Baber teaches composition at UK, principal ... well, you get the idea.
Even when you're not dealing with a UK organization, there's a good chance there will be a tie to the university.
That is not to diminish the efforts of artists from other area schools. I'm reminded of folks such as Stephanie Pistello, a Transylvania University theater graduate who now directs the New Mummer Group in New York; John Ellison Conlee, who graduated from Centre College's theater program and went on to a Tony Award nomination for his performance in The Full Monty; and singers such as Corey Crider and Norman Reinhardt, who got their starts at Morehead State University and Asbury College, respectively, before filtering through grad school at UK on their way to burgeoning opera careers. We have a wealth of colleges and universities in Central Kentucky with substantial arts programs. And covering UK arts extensively is not a subversive effort at boosterism (my dirty secret: I was born and raised a Duke fan -- one of UK's mortal enemies in basketball).
There's something to be said for having a major land-grant university in your city. It elevates the possibilities for what you can do and what your community demands.
Michael Friedman, Jim Lewis and Steven Cosson (L-R) discuss This Beautiful City, the play they created about the evangelical community in Colorado Springs, Colo., which is part of 32nd annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actor's Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Maggie Huber | Lexington Herald-Leader and LexGo.com.
Last week, I saw a performance of Lee Blessing's new play, Great Falls. It was an excellent piece of theater that belied the bells and whistles of so many shows today by focusing on two terrific, well-traveled actors under the guidance of a first-rate director.
And I was nowhere near New York City. Not even Chicago or San Francisco. I was in Louisville, a town most people only think about the first Saturday in May. But every year, somewhere around the last weekend in March, the Derby City becomes the center of the theater world with critics and theater professionals flocking in for the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
The festival, which has launched critically acclaimed plays such as Crimes of the Heart, is now into its fourth decade. It has had its up years and down years, but with recent hits such as Dinner with Friends and Omnium Gatherum, people still come to Humana hoping to be among the first to discover the next great thing.
Nowadays, when people describe Humana, it's often compared to the Sundance Film Festival, another major arts (yes, it attracts glitterati, but most of its offerings are geared to the art houses) event that thrives outside of major mets. Look south to Charleston, S.C. (John, are you ready?) and we have Spoleto, a major arts festival with a schedule that will make you da-rool, da-rool.
Chatting with Jim Clark, the president and CEO of LexArts, the United Arts Fund here in Lexington, he pointed out that one of the common denominators of these and other major arts happenings outside of the cultural capitals of America is that they didn't have great infrastructure to launch. What they had was a great vision that serious and substantial work could be done right where they were. It's the kind of success that should make you look around and wonder what could happen, wherever you are.