The James Hospital's Healing Art

Jody Gerbig Todd
The art gallery in the James Cancer Hospital, with black- and-white photos by Jan Bell

If it weren’t for its lengthy name, the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center—Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute might easily be mistaken for something less clinical. The lobby is busy but not noisy. The halls are clean but not medicinal. The building is modern, not drab, with multistory windows and a glass-and-stone staircase leading to a contemporary art gallery. Dale Chihuly’s blown glass and Perry Brown’s acrylics line the halls, and a musician from the Heather Pick Music Program, named in honor of the former 10TV anchor who died from breast cancer in 2008, strums a harp in the lobby. On a sunny day, the building almost feels like a luxury hotel in a swanky vacation spot.

The atmosphere and the art gallery were the vision of former CEO and director Dr. David Schuller, who hoped to do everything he could to benefit patients, caregivers and staff. He had read many studies establishing that art has physical and emotional healing properties, not just for cancer patients but for those who care for them. Think of a patient’s neighbor who brings them into the hospital for an eight-hour chemotherapy session, Schuller says. “Now those caregivers and patients have a diversion. They can take a self-guided tour of the artwork” or sit among a local collection in the James Art Gallery, which opened in February 2018, four years after the new hospital was completed.

The art’s reach is extensive, also benefiting patients confined to their rooms. They can enjoy a recording of a musical performance, leaf through a self-guided tour booklet, take a virtual art tour on the hospital’s website or work with an art therapist, says Caitlin Dennis, the manager of the James Art Program.

While the health care community generally believes in the science behind art’s therapeutic benefits, Schuller seems just as convinced by anecdotal evidence, noting that he has many stories in which art has reduced people’s anxiety, turning their hospital stays into more positive experiences. Dennis agrees, remarking how quickly patients improve when surrounded by art.

Not all art is appropriate for hospitals, however. Schuller and the many experts who planned and reviewed the building’s design and helped acquire the art—including the Columbus Museum of Art, the Wexner Center, and local and national art consultants—considered their audience carefully. The artwork tends to gravitate toward landscapes and abstracts with peaceful or uplifting tones appropriate for those confronting cancer.

Though the James Art Gallery’s exhibits rotate, the art inside always exudes the same positivity and sense of hope. The collection on display from March 28 to May 9, for example, showcased Jan Bell’s black-and-white photographs, including “The Sentinel,” portraying large rocks steadfast on the beach, and “The Passage,” a perspective piece of endless doorways. The current exhibit, running until July 4, features abstract, Zen-like landscapes by local painter Karen Alles.

Incorporating art into hospitals has been a growing trend in the last decade, but the James still seems ahead of its time. Part of that may be its holistic approach. “Treating disease means treating an entire community of people,” says Schuller. Art and music aren’t just complementary add-ons, he continues, but instead are integral to the hospital’s effort to help cure patients of illness.


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