By Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
Homage to Rothko No. 1,
You feel as though you are checking into a five-star hotel, when pulling up to the spacious porte-cochere off of 16th Street, walking under a bronze and frosted glass chandelier and through imposing doors that open to a grand lobby.
This is the welcoming entrance to the new UCLA Health - Santa Monica Medical Center, reflecting a growing trend in architecture and interior design that strives to humanize the experience of going to the hospital for patients and those who care about them.
The New York-based architectural firm of Robert A.M. Stern and its local partner for the project, CO Architects, selected the materials of red brick and tan stucco so that the building would connect visually to those of the main UCLA campus a few miles east in Westwood. Inside, exposed wood beams, bronze octagonal light fixtures designed by Stern and ivory walls recall the Arts and Crafts aesthetic that is enduringly popular in Southern California.
With such a backdrop, considerable thought went into the art that would hang throughout the facility. Behind the dark-wood admissions desk in that grand lobby, there is an impressive oil painting, Four Tall Palms, of bushy fronds bristling against a pale pink sky. This towering work is by the esteemed Frederick S. Wight, (1902-1986), an artist of considerable talent who not only taught at UCLA, but also ran the university's art gallery for 20 years. The Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery, as it was named in his honor, was absorbed into the Hammer Museum at UCLA, but Wight's contributions have not been forgotten. Influenced by the Symbolists, his luminous nature paintings are often exhibited at the Louis Stern Gallery in West Hollywood.
In fact, the lobby is something of a visual declaration by the hospital's curator, Debby Doolittle, that art of a certain quality be hung throughout the medical center. This could be a tall order, since UCLA mostly does not purchase art for its medical facilities. Yet, some 3,000 works have been donated over the years to the Medical Center Art Program. Many hang in Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, the Peter Morton Medical Building and other UCLA Health System facilities.
Not just any donation of artwork was accepted for installation at the new Santa Monica campus. The criteria require an artist to have an association with UCLA, like Wight, or with Santa Monica and the surrounding communities. In addition, the art is meant to be inspired by nature or landscape and reflect a feeling of hope and healing.
The photographic work of Richard Ehrlich, M.D., meets all such criteria. The UCLA urologist is an internationally recognized photographer, and he has donated many of his critically praised photographs to UCLA's medical facilities over the years. "My office is next door to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, and I spend more time there than anywhere else, including my house," he says. Dr. Ehrlich began taking photographs in the operating room but developed a passion that now is something of a second career.
Three of his large-format prints hang together along one hallway of the Santa Monica hospital. Two of the saturated images evoke the abstract paintings of Mark Rothko and are from his series, Homage to Rothko. The other is an image from his Malibu Skies series.
"You want something that is calming, not provocative, in a healing environment," Dr. Ehrlich adds. That is certainly the effect of two other photographs by the well-known landscape and nature photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum, one of an old stone wall, that hang in the waiting area of the Nethercutt Emergency Center.
Lori Sklar, a Santa Monica-based consultant who specializes in selecting art for hospitals and institutions, worked with
Four Tall Palms, Frederick S. Wight
Doolittle to choose and hang the art. "The art comes from artists and galleries that are interested in donating, as well as from faculty and staff who are associated with UCLA," she says.
In helping to select art for the Santa Monica facility, however, Sklar had a particular mandate, that the works "feel local, to be reflective of where the hospital is located and the demographics of the user population. There is a cohesive sensibility throughout the facility, so it feels like an art program and not a lot of jumbled art," Sklar says.
Every one of the hospital's 160 new or remodeled patient rooms has a framed color photograph of a scene from nature, mostly of the coastal regions such as brightly colored beach umbrellas on the sand by Mark Lohman, a sailboat cutting through the bay by Scott Stulberg or blue-tinged clouds over palm trees by Melanie Gideon. All art pieces are approved by a committee of hospital administrators, but staff members on each floor also were asked to appraise and approve what went into the rooms.
Though each room has a window, these photographs offer uplifting views of the outside world, says Becky Mancuso-Winding, senior director of development for UCLA Hospital System. For patients who are hospitalized for long periods, the art provides relief. "We want patients to feel we were bringing nature and the landscape to them," says Mancuso-Winding.
On the first floor near the main elevators, there is a vitrine containing three bronze figurative sculptures by Venice artist Ruth Snyder, whose work has been featured in The Smithsonian Museums. A large wall inside the dining commons features a panoramic photograph of the Santa Monica pier by Glenda Chung.
Nonetheless, the hospital still has a number of bare walls. Doolittle calls them "empty canvases" awaiting donations. "We'd like another Frederick Wight, especially since his connection to UCLA is so strong," Doolittle says. "We have a long way to go," Mancuso-Winding says. "But we are trying to stay true to our criteria."
Arts writer Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is the author of Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s (Henry Holt, 2011) and Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe (W.W. Norton, 2004).