Art is often a decorative item used to visually engage its observer.

Its presence can bring a blank wall to life or communicate a pressing message without a word. However, from a healthcare perspective, art can be far more than a simple aesthetic choice.

Like with music, drama and dance, visual art can also aid in the healing process, thanks to its ability to reduce stress and anxiety and bring joy to its observers.

A 2011 University of London study found that blood flow increased 10 per cent to the “joy” response part of the brain when subjects viewed a beautiful painting – much like when you look at a loved one.

Furthermore, a 2015 study from the Bern University of Applied Sciences, Switzerland which applied a holistic art concept in a hospital and administrative setting concluded that the art (a combination of visual, acoustic, tactile/haptic and olfactory elements) reduced the stress of waiting and increased both a patients’ perception of his or her room.

Hospitals, higher level care facilities and supportive/assistive institutions are now exploring the therapeutic value of art and transforming traditionally cold, white or sterile environments into visually engaging spaces.

Kim Fonder, creative director at exhibit by aberson, is well-versed in the psychology of art and regularly works within the healthcare industry and not-for profits space assisting with art selection that works to improve the “feel” of their facilities.

She says art can contribute to a space that fosters security, safety and calm for healing.

“It is well documented in research that calm and secure environments that are visually pleasing create viable patient outcomes that show a reduction in time in hospital stay,” she said. “Double blind studies have shown that patients in rooms with artworks stay less time than those in rooms where patients look at brick walls or no art.”

Mark Healey, associate director at architectural firm Bates Smart, led the interior design for Melbourne’s new Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) that was completed in 2011.

The hospital features art that offers a universal and nurturing appeal for both children and adults.

Healey noted that with children in particular, art performs in many ways.

“Art is many things to children, a meaningful form of expression, an effective method of distraction when in pain, but most importantly a common tool for imagination and play which encourages inclusion and reinforces safety,” he explained.

Healey said art was always on the agenda for RCH.

“Art was present within the hospital design from the earliest point of design conception: the function of which was to distract and engage, this distraction from the everyday elevates of separates the visitor experience from their immediate reality,” he said.

Fonder added that including art as part of the overall interior strategy will make for a better project.

“A well-planned facility that integrates art from the beginning can offer the users of the space, a refined vision, a broader experience, solace, and the opportunity to experience a congruent, calm, serene space in which to heal,” she said.

So what goes into choosing the right art for a healthcare space?

Art selection

Designers should consider the overall objective of the art, aesthetics, relevant themes and colour, along with appropriate placement.

Fonder and her team work with the client’s mission statement in mind during the process.

“We ask questions about what they desire to communicate to clients/patients, and how they have communicated that in various ways,” she said. “We also make sure to ask them what they wish to communicate to their clients the moment they walk in the door.”

Fonder also considers any potential triggers for the people using the space using three questions:

  1. What emotional state are they in when they are here?
  2. What emotional state would the healthcare providers like their clients/patients to achieve?
  3. What types of interventions are they already doing to create a healthy environment for patients?

This helps Fonder and her team understand the psychology of the patient along with the desired experience of the healthcare provider.

“We then work to build on that by providing images and content that will punctuate those interventions in some way,” she added.

Fonder will source art as per the brief and will work with local artists.

With RCH, an artist was commissioned for the project to produce seven major murals which were able to be manipulated by both the wayfinding and interior teams.

“We understood the extent of graphics in this hospital was going to be great and there was always going to be difficulty choosing any artist due to the level of subjectivity associated with this process,” said Healey.

The design team then set up a series of parameters to assess each artist which included:

  •  An understanding of child-friendly art as opposed to child-like art
  • An inclusive style, which non-gender specific and which anyone from infants to teenagers could relate to
  • A graphic language that was timeless to avoid staff or long-term patients tiring of it
  • A style that had a relationship with the immediate of environment of Royal Park
  • Art that showcased personality and featured characters that were recognisable and describable
  • Colour had to align with the interiors master palette and texture had to work at a number of scales

“The artist selected was Jane Reiseger whom Bates Smart invited to submit test sketches as we were unhappy with the initial selection from the wayfinding consultants, which were tending towards a more computer generated style of graphic art,” Healey said.

“This was critical as we strongly believed the style had to have a human quality to it. Jane’s work had a free, hand-drawn quality which we believed created an immediate connection to that innate desire in most children to make marks and her use of colour and gradient spoke directly to the building and light quality found in the park.”

Architecture and colour/themes

Images of nature and serene settings are often considered primary healing themes, and in some healthcare spaces Fonder tends to agree.

“There is some artistic content that has been statistically proven to be healing and well received by patients, in general calm, nature scenes, that feature landscapes and calm, slowly moving water,” she explained.

She also said that sometimes it’s the tonality of the natural scene that can create a calmer, more tranquil experience, which is particularly useful for patients in trauma. However, she warns against dismissing bolder colour or tactile surfaces.

“Effective use of colour and texture is a way to ‘layer’ the experience of the client. It provides a richer more expanded environment,” she said.

Fonder added that some art themes could be negative. She once worked on a geriatric ward and was given a large document of what art not to use in case it ignited a memory, a list that included faces, bridges or bodies of water.

In addition to the parameters Healey outlined above, he pointed to one of the key artistic features in RCH.

“Creature” is a 14-metre sculpture that sits in the hospital’s Main Street. An art committee that included representatives from Bates Smart decided on the design via an invited competition.

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Creature sculpture at RCH by Alexander Knox

“Submissions were put forward and Alexander Knox’s Creature was selected for its originality, playfulness and born from the concept of large things looking after small things,” Healey said.

Colour-wise, art can be integrated into the architecture, interiors and signage of the building.

“The wayfinding strategy was unique in that it attributed a particular environment found in the state of Victoria to each level of the building and from that environment fauna were selected to define wards,” said Healey. “This was an evidence-based, child-friendly wayfinding system that worked on the premise that children navigate not through signs but through a series of landmarks.

“The same graphics were also used to create a series of environmental graphics which were used in a range of clinical spaces to support staff in creating distraction for children undergoing procedures.

“In bedroom spaces, the graphic application was minimal and abstract; it was applied in glazing film, bed curtains and bedcovers. In treatment spaces, it was carefully arranged into large murals so multiple narratives could be extracted by staff to help alleviate stress of the patient.”

Art placement

Fonder and Healey agree that art placement should consider the people using or moving throughout the space.

Art in the RCH for example holds multiple functions.

“In the street, the Creature serves as not only major public art but as a secondary wayfinding device positioned purposefully at the major axis of the busiest department of the hospital to aid in direction giving,” said Healey. “Art was typically placed at major decision points throughout the hospital…the height range of the children was also considered so there were always points of interest, both low and high.

“Positioning of artwork used in treatment spaces was a consultative process with the staff to get maximum benefit for patients. So ceilings were heavily used in CT and imaging environments where patients were often lying on their back and the standard bed curtain was given much focus given its prevalence throughout the hospital and contained animals found throughout every level.”

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Art in clinical areas at RCH
Image via Bates Smart

Art budget

Fonder is familiar with the budget conversation with clients. She finds many clients will reiterate that they have a small “art” budget and that decisions will be subject to a lengthy approval process.

“It is very beneficial to have an overall budget and to know about any pre-planned art or existing pieces being migrated to the facility,” she said.

For art sceptics, she leans on the research.

“Staff outcomes are improved, staff rapport and relationships are improved,” she said. “A standard of excellence is also conveyed when art is a part of the public and even the private spaces of a healthcare facility,” she said.

Fonder added that once clients see the whole concept presented to them, they understand and have to do it.

“When art is part of the overall planning of a facility and is integrated into the planning, it becomes integral to the overall feel of the space,” she said. “The facility communicates to its users in a much more layered way and can provide a feeling of ‘safe harbour.’”

So while art is typically seen as adding beauty, its ability to perform beyond its decorative value should not be underestimated.