Modern medicine: Sol LeWitt comes to Pa. hospital

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NORRISTOWN, Pa. (AP) — If the new Einstein Medical Center Montgomery's cantilevered glass atrium, hotel-like frosted glass balconies and modishly streamlined furniture don't convince you that this place takes modernism as seriously as modern medicine, a walk down the first-floor hallway should remove any doubt.

In a break from conventional wisdom about what kind of art is most appropriate for hospitals and their patients, the 146-bed facility in East Norriton Township recently finished installing a work by the late conceptual artist Sol LeWitt.

The 154-foot-long, 9-foot-tall "Wall Drawing (hash)972" in on loan to Einstein for 25 years from the LeWitt estate. The series of drawings of cubes on contrasting bright backgrounds line a corridor that connects the north and south entrances of the hospital, which opened Sept. 29 on the site of a former golf course.

Einstein HealthCare Network's president and CEO, Barry Freedman, first saw LeWitt's creations at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

"I said to myself, 'I love his work — how wonderful would it be to have something like this in the hospital we're working on?'" he recalled. "It came together in a very serendipitous and fortuitous way."

A friend of a friend who happened to be a major collector of modern art facilitated an introduction with Sofia LeWitt, the artist's daughter and executor of the estate.

"She decided this was an interesting new hospital and a good cause and she said she'd lend it to us for 25 years," Freedman said. "I just about fell out of my chair."

Anthony Sansotta, who began working for LeWitt in 1980 and is artistic director for the LeWitt estate, said the artist's work appears in a handful of other hospitals here and abroad.

After seeing the dimensions and lighting of the long corridor where the hospital wanted its LeWitt, the estate made a few suggestions. Einstein Montgomery chose "Wall Drawing (hash)972," completed in 2001 and exhibited in Dublin's modern art museum but with its 11 parts in a configuration that spanned several large rooms.

It took a month to install the work.

LeWitt's wall drawings are each executed by other artists or students following a diagram and set of instructions. LeWitt worked this way, saying the most important element of his art was the concept behind it. In a sense, LeWitt's instructions are themselves the art.

To that end, the work is also temporal. When a museum exhibition of his work is finished, for example, it is simply painted over. The next time it goes on view somewhere, it's again painted according to LeWitt's directives.

"The concept was transformative to art itself," Freedman said, "and I'd like to think our hospital is working to transform health care in a region that hasn't had this kind of breadth and depth."

As hospitals grace their walls and halls with art and music, engage patients with crafts and drawing classes in groups or one-on-one, the goal is the same: making patients and their families feel better.

A 2009 national survey by the Washington, D.C.-based Society for the Arts in Health Care concluded that patients exposed to the arts have better outcomes physically and psychologically.

Emerging evidence also suggests economic benefits through improved staff satisfaction and retention, as well as shorter hospital stays and reduced pain medication.

Though the concept of placing art in healing environments isn't new, LeWitt's enormous eye-popping panel is worlds away from the sedate pictures of sailboats and sunflowers that hospitals until recently didn't dare to venture beyond.

Jeff Koons, the post-Pop artist who courted controversy for garish porcelain sculptures of Michael Jackson and others, transformed a room in a children's hospital in a Chicago suburb with a signature balloon-dog sculpture and an embellished CT scanner with friendly cartoon monkey faces.

Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles has a 4,000-piece art collection boasting the likes of Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning — none of them known for their soothing artwork. The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota boasts huge Dale Chihuly glass sculptures and an Alexander Calder mobile.

Though it's generally accepted by health care administrators that landscapes, seascapes and pictures of happy people can benefit the patient's experience, there is still plenty of disagreement about whether abstract art has the same effect.

Freedman said that in his view, it all depends on the context and location in which the art is placed.

"We decided on the patient care units there would be the more tranquil, bucolic scenery, local landscapes," he said. "In that corridor that connects our two main entrances ... we thought that's where we should have something vibrant and uplifting, with wonderful colors."

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