By Pat Malick

Much has been written about the appropriate selection of art in healthcare settings, and credible studies exist that support the many positive benefits to patients, families, caregivers and the public-at-large.

While the selection criteria remains fairly subjective, if carefully considering these A, B, Cs (and D and E), the end result will produce a remarkable and varied collection of art: representational and abstract, tranquil and bold, local and global. When thoughtfully and appropriately placed, the collection will have deep meaning and purpose.


To develop an art program that will resonate with a diverse healthcare audience, keep in mind how personal background, age, culture and education level influence personal preference. An experienced art viewer will typically be more receptive to abstract art; less experienced art viewers tend to prefer more figurative elements. The lesson is to select art with nuance and a variety of notes.

While not a new term or concept, there is a greater understanding of an innate and evolutionary-based affinity for nature. In 1984, Edward O. Wilson wrote a compelling book, “Biophilia,” about our universal response to nature. Applying this knowledge to the selection of art in a healthcare setting will support the commonly held belief that nature imagery will have greater resonance and consonance.


In the art world there are dual meanings for context. First, it speaks to the moment in time the art was created — the historical, political or cultural influences of a given time. The second meaning of the context relates specifically to scale, proportion, composition, dominance, movement, color and balance. Selection and placement of art in a healthcare setting demands a more careful examination of each element. A large public space with great natural light can support a monumental abstract or mixed-media work. The same piece would likely miss the mark in small-scale or insignificant space.

When experiencing pain, sorrow or great stress, a beautiful work of art will universally serve to distract and, at its best, will calm, uplift, inspire, delight and even amuse. Patient surveys, across inpatient/outpatient, acute/non-acute and adult/adolescent/pediatric settings, consistently reveal a strong desire for variety of subject matter, different mediums, art that prompts a feeling of escape or relief and, time and time again, art that is whimsical.

At its very best, art will engage and transport the viewer. Designers set the stage for engagement through the arrangement of space, light, color, furnishings and, finally, the art selection. However, ultimately it is the potential for an experience that is created. Every encounter with art is highly subjective and personal — that’s the reward for a well-conceived art program. Effectiveness may be measured in the enduring aspects of a given work, as well as how deeply it resonates with a particular patient demographic given the unique challenges of that distinct anticipated patient experience. Including a simple plaque with each piece, which tells the story of the art and artist, creates an installation that is didactic in nature — empowering the viewer to engage at different levels depending on their state of mind during any given encounter.

A strategic approach to a comprehensive art program, informed by the tenets of Evidence-Based Design, is certain to reap tangible, quantitative results, such as reduced blood pressure, pain perception and reliance on pain medication. More difficult to quantify are the immeasurable positive benefits of investing in a top-tier art program. Benefits include: strong first impressions, which correlate to perceived quality, improved patient and staff satisfaction, and enhanced wayfinding when art is used as a landmark. The simple joy of discovering a special piece of art that has the power to spark our imagination and nourish our spirit is the true testament to a successful program.

Patricia D. Malick, AAHID, EDAC, is a founding principal and the practice area leader for interior design with Array Architects.