Art and health come together in joint initiative by the Ottawa Hospital and the Ottawa Art Gallery

The life of a patient or staff inside a hospital can be a bit stressful. A new joint initiative between the Ottawa Hospital and the Ottawa Art Gallery aims to inject the power of art into this place of healing.

The Ottawa Hospital and the Ottawa Art Gallery have signed a unique memorandum of understanding that will see the two institutions work together to inject art into the hospital environment and hopefully make it healthier for all concerned.

The deal was formalized on Wednesday and a celebration of the joint effort was held Wednesday night in the Alma Duncan Room at the OAG.

But that’s not the only health and arts initiative that was celebrated Wednesday. The Ottawa Symphony is now bringing music to the cancer unit at the hospital’s General campus.

There is an emerging consensus around the idea that there is a positive correlation between wellness and art-making of all kinds and these Ottawa institutions are taking steps to bring that idea to fruition through these initiatives.

The partnership between the Ottawa Hospital and the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) is being called Creative Wellness and it will stretch over several years leading up to to opening of the new hospital located on land east of the current Civic campus. The initiative will connect artists of various disciplines and communities with hospital researchers and clinicians to create new works of art that will “enhance hospital spaces,” according to a joint media release about the initiative.

Jennifer Van Noort. Photo: Peter Robb

Jennifer Van Noort, vice-president of philanthropy with The Ottawa Hospital Foundation, said in an interview with ARTSFILE, agreed that the project is open-ended.

“This is very early days” in the evolution of the agreement, but she said that there is a community-wide interest in creating a healthier city that will help propel it forward.

“The hope is that this partnership will take many forms.” This needs to be open-ended, she said, because it isn’t clear right now what works and what doesn’t.

“This will allow us to be very creative and look at all sorts of mediums,” she said.

The initiative really has come about as a sort of “gathering of like-minded people,” Van Noort said, “who have different mandates for sure. What I have found is that people are wanting to push this forward. This isn’t just on the shoulders of the Ottawa Hospital. This is the most exciting time in our history as we work toward a new Civic campus on Carling Avenue.”

There is a recognition, she said, that the best way to care for our patients is to have a multi-disciplinary approach and that includes art.

Dr. John Sinclair is working on a new way to remove a tumour from the brain. Photo: Peter Robb

She said she is struck by the similarities between artists and researchers both of whom do their work to give back to others. She noted the work of neurosurgeon Dr. John Sinclair, who is pioneering a new technology that allows a surgeon to inject a dye into the patient and be able to see a tumour in the brain and allow it to be removed completely. Sinclair spoke to the audience Wednesday night about the technique known as fluorescence guided surgery, making a connection to the importance of colour in his job.

He also spoke about the use of music in the operating room and what it can bring.

In brain surgery, patients are awake. One of the key parts of this surgery is having the patient relax and that’s helped by music.

“We ask every single patient what kind of music they like. Is there something you want to bring into the operating room and more often than not they pick their favourite music.” Music makes the patient comfortable and it also helps the surgical team, along with lowering every one’s heart rate, Sinclair said.

And Van Noort also talked about the photo-based artist Leah Mowers, whose daughter developed a brain cancer and was treated in Toronto. Mowers, who was also present Wednesday night did a series of photographs of a monarch butterfly that she handraised and Mowers’ daughter Emma. The images represent her hope for her daughter’s recovery.

Jen Toby, centre, and Leah Mowers, right, in conversation with the OAG’s Alexandra Badzak. Photo” Peter Robb

At the centre of this initiative is the Ottawa philanthropist Jen Toby who supports both the Ottawa Hospital and the Ottawa Art Gallery.

“This started as all good projects do,” Tobey told the audience, “with a conversation and a question.” The conversation was with Van Noort, she said and the question was “how do we bring more attention to the great research going on at the hospital?”  She found an answer in an art project from London, England that illuminated the pollution on the streets of that city. Van Noort mentioned Sinclair’s researcher. And on it went.

“Sometimes a good idea grabs hold and works,” Toby said.

In an interview, Alexandra Badzak, the director and CEO of the Ottawa Art Gallery, echoed that. “This is a bit of a journey that we went on with the Ottawa Hospital. It was really started by Jen Toby who was excited by all the medical research going on at the hospital, but ti was staying there. No one knew about it. She thought art might be able to help explain the unknowable.”

Toby connected the OAG and the hospital for an exploratory conversation and it turned out both parties were very excited about the possibilities that started to emerge.

Ultimately the conversation asked could the initiative make a significant impact on the new hospital campus when it opens, Badzak said. That first conversation was this past spring. It has moved quickly since.

“There is now a growing understanding that art and creativity” has a role in wellness, Badzak said. This is happening in other centres in Canada including Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton.

OAG has already been in this field with the Creative Space program which is focussed on the mental health benefits of art-making.

Badzak said this relationship will be a long term one. “We don’t really know the end result, but we can speculate that we are going impact some of the art within the (new) hospital.” How that happens remains to be seen.

“We can also speculate that by connecting artists and researchers, new therapies might emerge.”

She called the partnership “historic in that two Ottawa institutions like this have not come together this way before. The fact that we are willing to let it be a journey is also unique.”

She said Mowers’ art work exemplifies the kind of work that might be placed inside the hospital. She added that there is research that indicates that art in this context helps patients focus, helps dealing with pain and encourages a more positive outlook. Research is also showing that the act of art-making helps build a sense of social cohesion and a more positive sense of self and even stimulating immune responses. This is the kind of thing that would stimulate the kind of research wanted by the partnership.

To that end, the collaboration “aims to promote local research excellence through artistic expression, enrich and transform hospital spaces, foster a healthier Ottawa and deepen cultural vibrancy and social cohesion.” Creative Wellness is expected to increase awareness of patient care at The Ottawa Hospital, incorporate art as part of the patient experience, and further develop art as therapy programming.

This project will encourage collaborations with other Ottawa arts organizations, such as the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra as well as artists, clinicians, patients, donors and the public. The hope is that these collaborations will bring visual, performing and applied arts to The Ottawa Hospital environment and, where possible, throughout the city.

Over the next four weeks, members of the OSO will be perform in the Cancer Centre at the General campus in October and November. The pilot program is called The Lepsoe Music Initiative,  in honour of OSO supporter Paul Lepsoe, who passed away after a struggle with brain cancer.

The plan is to explore the impact of live musical interventions on the patient, family and staff experience at TOH. The project will also look at the potential effect of direct music therapy interventions on palliative care patients through composition and/or playing.

The study is intended to clarify the potential efficacy of music as a low-cost way to support patients in a hospital setting. More information is available at the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra website.

In coming months the OAG and the hospital will be developing develop a plan for artistic submissions.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.