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Rebecca Baird's art installation, titled All My Relations, comprising of an air-brushed mural and suspended sculptures, is featured in the lobby of CAMH's new crisis and critical care building.Courtesy of CAMH

Toronto artist Rebecca Baird received a phone call from her brother Kenny on a sweltering day in July. Kenny was under a lot of stress. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was moving house, his dog was ill and he was concerned about having to put the animal down.

With these worries weighing on his mind, Kenny Baird, the design consultant for Ms. Baird’s new project at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, visited the Queen Street site to check on the installation process. It was his first time seeing his sister’s vision brought to life, and he dialled her to share his impression of the gigantic mural of brightly coloured birds and flora, and the constellation of satellite-like sculptures suspended from the lobby ceiling of the hospital’s new crisis and critical-care building.

“Rebecca,” she heard him say on the other end of the line. “It calmed me right down. It just took me out of my head.”

His response was precisely how the Cree Metis artist hoped her work would affect patients and staff of the mental health hospital.

“What I really want [is for people to] come in and just go, ‘Ah, this is a safe place,’” she said.

Ms. Baird’s project, All My Relations, which she created with a team of designers, artists and fabricators, is one of several works of art featured in CAMH’s redevelopment, the third phase of which was completed in late November. It exemplifies a growing movement in Canada and beyond to tap into the healing powers of art.

As hospitals renovate aging facilities and construct new ones, carefully curated paintings, photographs, mosaics and sculptures are replacing white, barren walls and delivering life and warmth to once cold, clinical institutions. While this movement is partly driven by an effort to make hospitals more inviting and patient-centred, it is also fuelled by research that suggests art has a positive effect on patients’ well-being and their health care experiences.

Art was often present in the very first hospitals, which grew out of church-run hostels for pilgrims and infirmaries for the sick and elderly, according to anthropologist Stine Louring Nielsen, a PhD fellow in the department of architecture, design and media technology at Denmark’s Aalborg University. Religious artwork was prominent in hospitals in the Middle Ages; throughout history, they have featured the works of masters, such as Rembrandt, William Hogarth and Marc Chagall. At a time when people lacked tools and medical knowledge, healing largely involved addressing patients’ minds and spirits, and relied on the support of the physical environment, she explains.

But with the advance of medicine and a greater understanding of the mechanisms of the human body, the role of one’s physical surroundings in healing, such as access to sunlight and air, was pushed aside. Art, too, became an afterthought or was forgotten altogether in modern health care institutions, says Ms. Nielsen, who has conducted several studies on patients’ experience of art in hospitals.

But lately, Ms. Nielsen has noticed a growing counter-reaction. Treatments and technologies have progressed to a point where society now has room to invest in environments for healing in a new way, she says. Over the past decade or so, there has been a growing interest in “healing architecture,” which integrates the senses, and thus artwork, into the design of hospitals.

Many hospitals are also challenging previous notions about what is acceptable in health care settings, displaying abstract works, bold colours and dynamic pieces that were once thought to be too challenging for patients. Art selections are no longer limited to the bland, generic pieces you might find in two-star hotels, such as pale watercolour prints of sailboats and still lifes.

There is consensus that hospital art should provide comfort and anything with disturbing imagery should be avoided, but in general Ms. Nielsen has found having some art is better than no art. Whether it is pleasing or annoying, “it activates your identity in a way – who you are and what matters to you,” she says.

Research, including hers, shows art benefits patients through multiple means, from serving as a conversation-starter or a landmark for finding one’s way, to providing cognitive and emotional stimulation. Ms. Nielsen has found that art can make lengthy wait times seem more bearable, and improve patients’ perception of the care they receive. People reported feeling that if staff make the effort to put art on the walls, “then they also have energy to care for me,” she says.

Art can benefit hospital employees too, according to Earl Pinchuk and Gary Blair, co-founders of the Montreal-based non-profit Art for Healing Foundation. Since its creation in 2002, the foundation has installed more than 13,000 works in hospitals and health care facilities across the country.

Mr. Pinchuk recalls that a maintenance worker once approached him to say what a difference it made in his day to have something nice to look at while sweeping the hospital floors.

In spite of support from patients and staff, incorporating art into hospitals remains a donor-driven effort. CAMH received funding from donors for its $1.4-million Therapeutic Art Project, which included Ms. Baird’s artwork. Janet Mawhinney, the hospital’s director of community engagement, suggests there would be little public support for governments to fund such paintings and sculptures.

“I think most taxpayers wouldn’t be like, ‘great, spend my tax money on art,’ even though we believe it’s healing and promotes recovery,” she says. “It’s not the same as, you know, a new important piece of equipment or an extra nurse or social worker.”

Even so, the value of art for patients and staff is more evident than ever, says Katharine Knowles, art collection manager at the VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation in Vancouver. In this pandemic, when the number of visitors are restricted and staff are working exceptionally long hours, patients and employees can often be seen in the corridors late at night, gazing at some of the 2,400 works of art housed throughout Vancouver General Hospital, UBC Hospital and the GF Strong Rehab Centre, she says.

“It’s in those quiet times where you see the real impact of the art in providing these quiet moments of reflection and hopefully of healing for people, especially in such a challenging and turbulent time in health care.”

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