A Pioneer in Arts & Healing: Michigan Medicine’s Gifts of Art

Artwork Archive | August 30, 2019 (Updated April 12, 2021)

Photo courtesy of Gifts of Art.

Art in hospitals is now a given thanks to progressive programs like Gifts of Art at the University of Michigan’s Michigan Medicine. 

Here at Artwork Archive, we have the privilege of supporting organizations that bring art into the world. One of our esteemed users, the University of Michigan, is a pioneer in the world of arts and health with its Gifts of Art program at Michigan Medicine

Established in 1986, the Gifts of Art program is one of the first and most comprehensive arts in medicine programs nationwide. It brings the world of art and music to patients, families, visitors, faculty, students and staff at the University of Michigan’s multi-hospital medical center.

Gifts of Art is a remarkable case study in making a significant impact without large philanthropic dollars. The program serves over a thousand inpatient beds, a staff of 26,000, and over two million outpatient visits annually with programming that includes nine galleries, a bedside art making program, an Art Cart, weekly public concerts, a full medical center orchestra, and more. 

Changing the status quo

Michigan Medicine's Gifts of Art program is part of a group of pioneering healthcare art programs that date back to the 1970’s, including the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics’ Project Art and Duke Medical Center’s Cultural Services

Gifts of Art was conceived as an enhancement to the new hospital facility being designed in the early 1980’s. Since the beginning, the arts has had a place in the hospital system. It is even included in the Environment of Care. The policy goes beyond traditional physical comfort and safety issues to include art and access to nature—hence the Gifts of Art program at Michigan Medicine understands that art is a tool in the healing process and that it is part of the success of the hospital. 

It is important to remember that the inclusion of arts at this time was not typical. Today, we come to expect art in healthcare settings. And some hospitals even make us feel like we’ve entered a museum. But in the 20th century, hospitals were cold, sterile, utilitarian places that frightened and overwhelmed their visitors and exhausted their staff. In the past few decades, hospitals have made a concerted effort to focus on comfort and aesthetics along with safety and functionality. Because of founding programs like University of Michigan’s and organizations like the National Organization for Arts and Health (NOAH), art is an integrated part of our medical centers. 

Photo by CE Andersen and courtesy of Gifts of Art.

Gifts of Art programs utilize the arts to assist and enhance the healing process, reduce stress, support human dignity and renew the spirit.

Why does art in hospitals have such a profound effect on us? We might say it is because art in healthcare has a job to do. It is not intended to merely hang on the wall and look pretty. It is a workhorse whose job is to distract, engage, comfort, calm, maintain a presence, provide clues to social support and help retain personal identity. Some permanent pieces of art stand the test of time and continually retain their freshness, but additional energy, pleasure and surprise comes from art that is ever changing.” Elaine Sims, Director of the Gifts of Art program. 

Art enhances and humanizes the environment. It minimizes environmental stresses (which typically abound in medical settings). Art helps makes people comfortable again. And that it is extremely important. The purpose of the Gifts of Art program is to: 

  • Revitalize and enrich patient, visitor and staff lives.
  • Assist and enhance the healing process.
  • Reduce the stress and anxiety often associated with the healthcare setting.

In the words of Elaine, “Today's healthcare facilities can feel like small towns.” They house a sizable population and for many patients, they travel long distances and spend what feels like ages navigating the facility and waiting between appointments. Elaine continues, “In this environment, art is a powerful presence and is experienced quite differently than when viewed in a museum or gallery. The relationship between the viewer and the art object is more visceral, immediate and intimate.”

Let’s take a look at some of the ways the Gifts of Art program integrates art into the healthcare environment.

Art Art Cart visit. Photo by BTN LiveBIG. 

Art Cart

The Art Cart program is a lending library of framed poster art. Volunteers take colorful carts to the patient floors in the University Hospital and offer patients a selection of artwork to display in their rooms. The simple choice of artwork gives patients a sense of control at a time when so much is decided for them. Many times these images have a profound effect on patients and become valued "companions" in their hospital experiences.

Artists in Residence

Artists in Residence create participatory art projects with the hospital’s patients and staff. Gifts of Art’s first such project, The Dragon of Wishes Hopes and Dreams, was a collaboration with Art and Design Assistant Professor Anne Mondro and her students. The dragon was designed by artist Katy Bergman Cassell and brought about by participants creating messages in words and pictures on cut paper shapes—more than 1,700 in all—which were then folded to become the scales adorning the Dragon located near the main lobby. 

It’s been proven that art forms social bonds, so the Artist in Residence program is instrumental in giving patients and staff social interaction.  

Staff also have the opportunity to make art. Though, admittedly, it is challenging to find time for the staff to get away and create given their demanding hours and roles.

Gifts of Art Gallery, University Hospital Main Corridor. Exhibit by Aimee Lee. Photo by Carrie McClintock.

Permanent and temporary galleries

Gifts of Art's nine galleries are viewed by approximately 10,000 people each day. That makes their galleries some of the most widely visited indoor, non-museum exhibit spaces in Michigan!

The artwork on display is richly diverse in style, medium, form and subject, and provides an ever-changing sampling of the best art the region has to offer. Every three months they rotate the exhibits, constantly changing the environment. 

The rotating art gallery benefits the often overlooked audience in hospitals—staff. There are over 26,000 employees at Michigan Medicine and they don’t get to leave campus; it’s a closed-system. The staff appreciate having something new to look at. It keeps things fresh. They also buy art from the galleries, as do patients, benefiting artists and the program.

Gifts of Art solicits works from all over the world with calls for exhibits. Much of their work is from the region.

“We keep an eye out for things that our patients and staff would relate to. We want to reflect the different languages and cultures we interpret for in the hospital. We also keep an eye out for diversity of work and artist,” shares Kathi Talley, Visual Arts Coordinator for Gifts of Art. 

They’ve had several shows by disabled artists and recently had works by an autistic artist. The “outsider art” is colorful and playful. Elaine asserts, “Exhibition programs give a voice and forum to artists who may be outside the mainstream due to physical or medical challenges.”

Artists, we highly recommend keeping your eyes peeled for Gifts of Art’s calls! They are deeply committed to artists and are very organized. “I view artists as my customers,” says Kathi. They don’t charge to submit and provide packets with diagrams of exhibit sites, checklists, guidelines. Artists will drive their art from Boston, Las Vegas, etc. to participate. 

Staff exhibition

Gifts of Art also hosts an annual Employee Art Exhibition to honor and celebrate the creativity of their staff. It’s also one of the reasons why staff stay at the hospital—for the opportunity to showcase their art. When you think of the physical, mental and emotional demanding aspects of healthcare employees, that’s an incredible retention play.  


The many art quilts in Michigan Medicine are an interesting mix of science, research and art. For example, Fiber Artists@Loose Ends partnered with scientists at the University’s Center for Organogenesis to make colorful art quilts based on cellular images for spaces in the hospital. Quilts envelope and embrace, and provide shelter and warmth.  Not surprisingly, they can be found throughout the hospitals as permanent art and in the exhibit galleries. Some clinical units even make quilts with patients to celebrate their journey. 

Check out the Bioartography art quilts—Art Under the Microscope

Frida Kahlo watercolor painting kit contents. Photo by Elaine Reed. 

Bedside Art Program

Gifts of Art’s Bedside Artists visit adult patients and guests with specially designed, fail-proof art making projects because art-making helps them relax and retain a sense of identity. Art kits include: journals, beaded bracelets, paper folding, greeting cards, drawing and more. 

Gifts of Art also has an economical and powerful tool—coloring books for grownups! Every year they print 40,000 coloring books designed by artists (and buy the same number of boxes of 24 crayons). The coloring books provide creative distraction, anxiety relief, and human connection. They are delivered to patient rooms and given to people in stressful waiting areas. 

Now that’s a better take-away than your post-op report!

And how does the University of Michigan Health System track of all of these artworks?

A year ago there was a push for the University of Michigan to track and maintain all of its valuable non-museum collections and public art pieces, like its Maya Lin Wave Field, under one umbrella. Michigan Medicine selected Artwork Archive because the IT team determined that the new system needed to be cloud-based. Elaine shares, “We have centers all over so there can be a silo effect. And, collections have been spearheaded by different people at different times.” Thus, the necessity for Artwork Archive’s cloud-based tools—to coordinate all the collections and make information easily accessible on an institutional level. 

Gifts of Art fosters relationships between patients and artists.

People come from all over the region. Sometimes this is their first exposure to the arts. They may never have been to a museum or attended a performance. As a result, their experience of the art feels personal and authentic.

If a patient has a positive experience at the hospital, they purchase a work to celebrate. Or, they may buy something as a legacy to loved ones if they know they won’t be around for that next special occasion. 

Terry Abrams, a photographer that exhibited at Michigan Medicine, shares how he connected with patients at an art fair. 

“On the first morning of Art Fair, a woman stuck her head in my booth and said that she’s been spending a lot of time in the hospital, not of her own choosing. She said thanks for having my photos on display because they give her peace and comfort.

Over the next three days of the Art Fair, 15-20 people stopped by my booth to thank me and say that they enjoyed seeing my work in the hospital. They said that it was especially helpful in that environment. Of those 15-20 people, at least five expressed it in an even deeper way, saying that it was calming and helped them to find peace. Others said that it helped them to feel a deeper connection during a challenging time.”

Patient with coloring book. Photo by Elaine Reed. 

Art heals.

Art promotes mental, social and physical well-being. In a place of sickness and fear, it reminds us of the world outside of the hospital walls, and allows us to experience our new world within the walls with curiosity and enjoyment. A patient at Michigan Medicine put it perfectly—“Being able to look up and see the picture on the wall helped reassure me that things would eventually return to normal.”

Learn more about how the arts helped heal one of our own Artwork Archive teammates and her family during a three-month stay at Children's Hospital Colorado. 

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