A Fundraiser Rallies Donors to Loan Paintings for a Special Exhibit of Black Art at Cedars-Sinai
When Anne Johnson’s husband, Charles, underwent surgery at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, she walked the halls as she waited and found the art “uplifting.” But she noticed none of the art she saw featured people who, like her, were Black.
Johnson didn’t think much about the art again until her TV producer husband was fully recuperated. But then, the memory of not seeing art reflective of her culture returned.
“My mind went right back there,” Johnson says. “We’ve been collectors for years, and I thought, maybe they have no Black art because nobody is giving them any art. And I said, ‘You know, we ought to will some art to Cedars so they can have some art.’”
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When Anne Johnson’s husband, Charles, underwent surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, she walked the halls as she waited and found the art “uplifting.” But she noticed none of the art she saw featured people who, like her, were Black.
Johnson didn’t think much about the art again until her TV producer husband had fully recuperated. But then the memory of not seeing art that reflected Black people and culture returned.
“My mind went right back there,” Johnson says. “We’ve been collectors for years, and I thought, ‘Maybe they have no Black art because nobody is giving them any.’ And I said, ‘We ought to will some art to Cedars.’”
Johnson contacted K.C. Miller, senior principal gifts officer at Cedars-Sinai. Johnson had worked with Miller on previous donations to the hospital and told Miller her plan. While Miller could have connected Johnson to the planned-giving department, she realized what Johnson wanted was change now — but leaving art in her will would create change later. So Miller made a counter proposal to give Johnson the best of both worlds.
“I asked if she and Charles would consider loaning it to us, and she said, ‘Yes,’” Miller says.
That conversation launched Open Doors, a special exhibit at Cedars-Sinai showcasing 23 paintings from Black artists, many on loan from Black donors in Hollywood with whom Miller had worked previously.
“I was able to pull from the resources of 20 years of relationships that I built,” Miller says of getting others to lend art — including Debra Lee, former CEO of BET Networks; Dale Cochran, widow of attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.; and the actor Denzel Washington and his wife, Pauletta, who have promised a piece in the future. The exhibit opened last February and will run through the end of Black History Month — February — this year.
Why Diverse Art Matters
Art in hospitals helps take people’s minds off the often unpleasant or distressing reasons they’re there. Art in medical settings has been a hot topic in recent years, with research showing patients and visitors feel more satisfaction when art is on the walls.
A British Medical Journal blog discussed the importance of providing art that reflects the hospital’s patients and visitors. Diya Ghosh, owner of Tuk Tak Studio, works with the People’s HeART, a project that installs culturally relevant art in Massachusetts hospitals with the goal of exploring health equity through art. She has seen the impact of art that reflects visitors’ culture.
“I started this work at a cancer center, and these are people who are waiting for a long time, receiving medication for extended periods of time,” Ghosh says. “If there’s something present on the wall and it’s of interest, then they have something to talk about and be focused on, rather than go back into a negative train of thinking [about their illness].”
At Cedars-Sinai, the exhibit is on the main plaza level that patients traverse regularly.
“We purposely picked the most highly trafficked area in the hospital,” Miller says. “Mountains of patients and visitors and families pass through every day. Sometimes, I would stand in the corner and watch people take out their cellphones and take pictures. Some people have been crying — they’re so touched by it.”
Protection Key in Placement
Putting art in the wrong spot in a hospital can result in it being damaged by fluid spray, collisions with life-saving machinery, or other mishaps. That’s one reason the Cedar-Sinai exhibit is on the plaza level, rather than in or near patient rooms or waiting rooms.
A hospital is a busy place, says John Lange, curator of the Cedars-Sinai art collection. “There’s a lot of equipment moving around, so finding the appropriate place to do it where it could be safely displayed without fear of it being bumped into it, or something like that, is important.”
Lange’s advice for hospitals considering displaying original artworks: “Make sure that they’re attached to the wall safely and securely,” he says, noting that California’s regulations on earthquakes require special care in securing artwork.
“Also, don’t be afraid to put something behind a protective glazing — like a museum-grade UV plexiglass with a good, strong frame around it,” Lange continues. “That helps protect the piece and allows the viewers to have that close-up view of it without fear of it getting bumped or busy hands touching it.”
Lange says that before accepting art for the special exhibit, Cedars-Sinai made sure its insurance policy was up-to-date and that all requirements of the policy were met on its end.
Ghosh says hospitals can use reprints, rather than original art, when the art is going into patient rooms or other areas where it might get damaged. She notes that getting good artwork for hospitals can be expensive. “This is where philanthropy comes in,” she says. “Art is still not very well funded. It’s about who is willing to pay for what art in a space.”
Beyond the Special Exhibit
While the special exhibit has been a hit, it has not added diversity to Cedars-Sinai’s permanent collection. Donated artwork must first be approved by the hospital’s Advisory Council for the Arts, made up of gallery owners, art journalists, artists, and business leaders. That process takes time.
“We framed it as a special exhibit, so we didn’t have to go through the Arts Council,” Miller says. “We got creative with that, and within a month, we had everybody signing off on documents and got it installed.”
Lange believes the advisory council plays an important role but adds that Cedars-Sinai is looking to diversify both its art collection and the membership of the council.
“That’s something we’re looking at more closely and making sure that there is a good balance of diversity — culturally and of expertise,” Lange says.
Miller says the exhibit came to fruition because she knew the community of Black donors so well, after having worked with them for years. She says that for organizations to diversify their donors and donations, it’s crucial to have a diverse team.
“Make sure your development team represents the community you serve,” Miller says. “Make sure you hire fundraisers that are Latino, that are Black, that are Asian. It can’t just be the audience we see mostly: all white men. If you’re serious about diversity, you have to do something about it.”
Due to the attention the exhibit has received — including a streamed panel discussion — more people have been inspired to give.
“This exhibit has turned into a few donations and some conversations about more loans in the future — from the community and from artists directly,” Lange says. And Johnson still plans to will the loaned art to the hospital.
As Cedars-Sinai works to diversify its permanent collection and advisory council, it is adding more special exhibits. After Open Doors closes at the end of February, the space will host art from local donors, followed by an exhibit that will feature Latino works.
That’s exactly the kind of progress Johnson hoped for when she reached out to Miller. “I think people should speak up when they don’t see a representation of themselves on the walls anywhere,” she says. “I hope more collectors will donate to Cedars or, if they’re not here, to the hospital where they live.”