How Arts in Health is Persevering During COVID

Artwork Archive | January 6, 2021 (Updated April 12, 2021)

Murals by Austin Zucchini-Fowler. Image permissions from artist.

The story of arts in healthcare during the pandemic is one of epic resiliency. 

Before COVID, hospitals were already stressful places. Healthcare workers faced burnout and anxiety; the normal day-to-day pressures impacted their mental wellbeing and performance. Patients and their families also faced unease and uncertainty during diagnosis, appointments and procedures. 

For half a century, hospital art programs have emerged to combat these stressors—to transform the healthcare experience through the arts—providing respite, connection and joy for hospital workers, patients and families. Intimidating and sterile environments are transformed through exhibitions and installations. Patient wellbeing is enhanced and uplifted through performances and bedside art making. 

Enter COVID-19.

Since March of 2020, the global pandemic has brought immense challenges to hospitals. Frontline healthcare workers are depleted as they battle the pandemic. Even in early 2021, hospitalizations skyrocket across the US. 

Here is where art can help heal. But, with the limitations and restrictions of COVID (social distancing, quarantining, closures, etc.), can the arts still make an impact? 

Hospital art programs have had to pivot during COVID. The contagious disease has kept artists out of patient rooms. Performances have been cancelled. Hospitals are adjusting and finding ways to bring the arts to healthcare providers and patients and family. 


Art as a salve for loneliness

During the global pandemic, COVID patients have been quarantined. Visitors are limited for those in-patient for other ailments and procedures. Babies in NICU's can only be seen by one parent at a time.

That’s a lot of time to be alone. 

Nurses have carried the brunt of that loneliness. They’ve had to supplement their medical care with basic human contact needs. 

Hospital art programs are doing their best to bring art into these isolated spaces. Alice Kinsler, Manager of Therapeutic Arts and Activity Services at Concord Hospital explains that before COVID, the art program was a part of hospital culture—that those in therapeutic arts were partners with the arts. “We help nurses do their work better by giving them another resource who are anxious, lonely, bored or in pain," shares Alice.


But what happens when artists cannot enter the hospital?

In the early days of COVID—the “lockdown period”—art staff were furloughed. Artists, performers and volunteers weren’t allowed to access the hospital and could not provide bedside experiences. 

With the continued restrictions in place to protect hospital staff and patients, hospital art programs have had to get creative.

Photo courtesy of Michigan Medicine Gifts of Art program.

Art continues to heal. The creative process just looks a bit different. 

Hospital art programs had to reevaluate the way they provide services during COVID. With a highly contagious pandemic, interactions look different. Access to materials is different. Priorities for care have changed to protect all involved.

Consider something as simple as a coloring book.

Fortunately, even before COVID, Michigan Medicine’s Gifts of Art program would circulate art materials in individual kits to allow patients to safely make art and engage with original art coloring books. Even then, infection control guidelines necessitated that what entered a patient room, stayed in a patient room.

What changed with COVID was how the artists delivered the much-desired art projects. Gifts of Art partnered with floor nurses to deliver art kits and coloring books to patients when they were restricted from the floors. Nurses also helped facilitate Zoom visits with patients. Artists created fun and easy instructional videos for patients on how to make various art projects contained in the kits. They also turned their attention to supporting staff with art activities and music to help relieve stress and provide for a creative pause when possible. 


Bringing virtual experiences into the patient’s room

In the days before the global pandemic, staff musicians played bedside, volunteers played in public spaces, and full concerts were held in the hospital lobby featuring the best of regional talent—bringing the soothing tranquility of music to patients, family, and staff.

With COVID restrictions, that was not possible for many months, so the Gifts of Art program partnered with Project: Music Heals Us to create real-time virtual music experiences for patients and staff. They also recorded and uploaded favorite songs and performances to playlists on the Michigan Medicine YouTube channel. Patients and staff could listen and experience the calming sensation of music from their computer or mobile device. 

Image from Gifts of Art's YouTube Song Bank.


Using art to encourage play, distraction, and delight.

Colorado is lucky to have a temperate climate with warm and sunny days. Children’s Hospital Colorado (CHCO) took advantage of the good weather and created a scavenger hunt for their outdoor sculpture garden. The goal was to surprise and delight patients, staff, and family—to get them outside and get some fresh air.

CHCO also expanded their scavenger hunts into the Intensive Care Units to help those that were more limited explore their space.


Art on the walls remains relevant.

Hospitals that have invested in an art collection are seeing the impact. When a person cannot be there to encourage experiences with art, the artwork can do the speaking in its place.

Families are more stressed entering hospitals—worried that their presence will immediately garner sickness. One mother posted on Instagram a photo of a dog-filled canvas en route to Children Hospital Colorado’s multidisciplinary clinic. She said that the art helped welcome and distract her and her toddler.


In a way, artwork has become more important and intimate. 

Families and patients are relegated to a particular hallway. They are left with more free-time without visitors. The artwork becomes part of their sense of home and normalcy. Here is a post from CHCO's Instagram account:

"If you wander the halls of our hospital, you won’t see bare walls or bland colors. Instead, you’ll see cheerful pops of color on vibrantly painted walls adorned with art. ⁣⁣⁣Here’s just one of the many pieces in our permanent art collection. “Queenie” the dog by Tif Choate can be found on the 9th floor of our hospital on Anschutz Medical Campus...Pieces of art like Queenie provide a positive distraction for kids and families–whether they’re here for a quick appointment or an extended hospital stay."

Queenie by Tif Choate, part of the Children's Hospital Colorado collection 


Small but mighty moments

Across the country sidewalks leading into hospitals are filled with daily affirmations—supporting healthcare workers, sharing words of thanks and appreciation. Art pays tribute to their tireless work. 

Even beyond the hospital, you can find murals painted to memorialize the impact of healthcare workers. In Denver, artist Austin Zucchini-Fowler depicts the tenacity and selflessness of nurses and doctors with boxing gloves and angelic wings. 


How did art program managers continue providing impact during lockdown?

Nonessential employees had to abruptly leave hospitals in mid-March. This brought art program managers home without access to their offices and desktops. 

We saw a number of hospitals turn to cloud-based tools to provide access while particular employees were on lockdown.

With online art inventory databases like Artwork Archive, art program managers can continue to access their art collections, collaborate with teammates, and exhibit their works virtually. Despite working from home, curator Antonia Dalpena-Tretter was able to carry on with projects for Stanford Children Health. She and Stanford's conservator completed an important condition assessment project for near 4,000 works of art. Despite the pandemic, they were able to upload treatment plans, make condition notes, and plan for necessary conservation. 


Engaging artists during COVID

While gallery and museum doors were closed, artists were grateful for the 24/7 open-door policy of hospitals. Their artworks are viewed as staff wander the halls during the night shift. A sculpture is inspected as a child waits for her appointment. 

The curator of Children’s Hospital Colorado, Heidi Huisjen, continues to work with artists and acquire pieces for the collection during COVID.

Programs are popping up to support frontline workers

The National Organization for Arts in Health (NOAH) is launching a new program that will provide health care workers the type of release and self-care they need to help them fight COVID-19 burnout and manage their stress during this critical time. 

NOAH’s Arts for Resilience in Clinicians (ARC) project will offer health care workers free expressive art programs created to help combat burnout and anxiety, and manage the day-to-day pressures that can impact their mental wellbeing and work performance. Through a series of videos and virtual sessions available online or through a customized app, they will be able to access this vital support tool any time they choose.


Deep financial losses during the pandemic impact offerings.

Programs like NOAH’s are much needed as hospitals and their art programs suffer financial losses during the pandemic. All non-emergency surgeries were canceled and many people avoided hospitalization, at least in the early months of COVID.

That’s why Artwork Archive continues to provide heavy discounts to help nonprofit art programs operate and manage their art collections. 


Art helps us navigate grief. 

2020 has been a year of loss and tragedy. Hospitals have been an epicenter of grief. But, despite the trauma of the year, hospitals have also been a place of hope and resiliency. And the arts have contributed to this uplifting narrative. Whether it be consuming or making art, the creative process makes us feel alive, connected and joyful.


Thank you healthcare frontline workers for the sacrifices you make so that we can be safe and well. 


Thank you artists for offering joy and levity during stressful times. Your vision and contributions continue to inspire us.


Thank you to the arts administrators who continue to keep the wheels turning so that we can experience the healing power of the arts.


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