Arts and Health at Duke, improving the patient and staff experience through the arts

Friday, April 28, 2017

Although subtle, the walls and halls of Duke University Hospital are full of creativity. When you walk through the corridors, there are art exhibits of bright, colorful landscapes and flowers, sounds of violins, saxophones, flutes and pianos as background music, and poems on the hospital’s walls for all to enjoy.

The organization that coordinates these activities and displays is Arts and Health at Duke.

Arts and Health at Duke, a department within Guest Services of the Duke University Health System, provides programs that promote creative expression and positivity among Duke Health patients, their loved ones, staff, and hospital visitors in literary, visual, and performing arts.

The current manager of Arts and Health at Duke is Sharon Swanson. She is also the manager for Duke University Hospital Volunteer Services.

Swanson started her career as a social worker more than 30 years ago. As time passed, she was worked as a freelance writer and produced a documentary film, “Landscapes of the Heart,” before applying to Arts and Health at Duke in 2011.

“I decided I wanted to work in something a little more structured. I didn’t like working by myself,” Swanson said.

She applied for a part-time position as Arts and Health’s literary arts coordinator, which required a work schedule of 20 hours per week.

“When I saw it, I thought ‘this is the perfect job for me,”’ said Swanson. “My very first job was a volunteer at a hospital when I was 15. I was very comfortable in the world of the hospital and with an undergraduate in social work, public administration, and then writing, it kind of all came together.”

Some may ask, what place do fine arts have in a hospital?

In several news articles and studies, such as The New York Times’ “Improving Medicine with Art” and “Arts, Health, and Well-Being across the Military Continuum: White Paper and Framing a National Plan of Action,” fine arts programs in health care been found to have a positive impact on work performance, mental, and physical health.

The literary arts program, now coordinated by Katja Hill, offers several outlets for patients, loved ones, hospital visitors, Duke staff, and the general public to be expressive writers. The program holds the “Write for You” journaling sessions, workshops, retreats, and manages the “Poetry on the Walls” project.

The journaling program has been used as a method to reduce stress, reduce blood pressure, improve lung and liver functions, and improve memory.

“I think that a lot of what we do in Arts and Health is about resiliency,” said Swanson. “There is that connection between writing and problem-solving.”

The literary arts program also offers a recordable books program, which is an opportunity for long-term and “end-of-life” patients to connect with their loved ones in a thoughtful way. The idea for recordable books was initiated by Swanson during her time as the literary arts coordinator.

She noticed there were children visiting their parents in the oncology unit. These parents would be gone for weeks or months at a time for treatment. As a result, they rarely saw their children.

“I asked them if they had any recordable books for their children. They said no, but their faces lit up,” said Swanson. “I worked together with oncology to get recordable books, a couple for each parent. They can record in their own voice for their children so that it could be listened to at night when the parents couldn’t be there.

“It’s kind of an ‘under the radar’ program,” she said. “But it’s been a very special one.”

A need for music

Arts and Health’s performing arts program is led by William Dawson, the Semans/Byrd Performing Arts Coordinator and Musician in Residence. For Arts and Health, music is one of its most requested programs.

Dawson has a program where he teaches music lessons for long-term patients, and another program called “Putting the Uke in Duke,” which is offered to patients, children, and others. Sometimes, he and a patient may even form a small band that’s just for the two of them.

“In 2014, we did a survey with the staff here and asked them, ‘Out of all the things that we do, what should we be focusing on?’ They said ‘music, music, music,’" Swanson said. “You can never have enough music here.”

The volunteer musicians in the programs are scheduled to play at certain times and locations throughout the hospital. The Arts and Health 2016-2017 musicians in residence play for patients at their bedside.

A majority of the musicians are Duke undergraduate students who plan to pursue medical school. These students must earn hours in a healthcare setting, which is a recommended prerequisite for medical school. The volunteers often perform for more than 600 people in busy lobbies and concourses.

Since becoming a part of their team, Dawson’s efforts have doubled the number of performing arts volunteers. The numbers rose from five musicians two years ago to now 22 musicians.

For some volunteers, their experience playing in the corridors each week can be a special one. Emily Chen, a former performing arts volunteer, emailed Dawson about her experience playing at the hospital.

In the letter, Chen said she was playing her flute in the hospital’s concourse when a young girl, who appeared to be undergoing chemotherapy, started dancing to the music. The little girl asked her if she could play another song.

While she played another tune, the little girl danced again. According to Chen, “both she and her grandma looked so happy.” She recalled that the experience almost brought her to tears that day.

Bringing visual arts to the hospital

The visual arts program, led by visual arts program coordinator Jennifer Collins-Mancour, also strives to create positive feelings in others’ lives.

To do so, the visual arts program carefully curates artwork for six gallery spaces across the hospital and provides art kits, such as coloring books and origami, for patients that provide distraction and relaxation. The program also offers self-guided art tours of the artwork around the hospital with downloadable walking tours for smartphones and tablets.

One of the most notable art exhibits that Arts and Health has curated is artwork from local “Fish Bouffant” artist Craig Gurganus. Gurganus creates silly, cartoon-like creatures such as shrimp, lobsters, and octopi with googly eyes and bright colors from recycled surfboards. This artist is scheduled to bring another exhibit to Duke University Hospital beginning May 1.

“One of the things that I loved about that exhibit is that you would see grandfathers and 4-year-olds just fascinated,” said Swanson. “People bought [pieces] for their beach houses, their lake houses, and for their bathrooms. It was the most popular exhibit that we’ve had.”

In the past, Arts and Health used to have a long-standing photography-based exhibit in the hospital’s main gallery spaces from the class “Children and the Experience of Illness,” taught by Duke pediatrician and photojournalist John Moses, MD.

Duke students in the class were assigned to work with patients on their final project. Using the camera, the patients’ and the students took photos that explored the life of being a child with an illness.  

Similar exhibits, such as the “Children and the Experience of Illness” and other patient or staff artwork, are displayed at the Mars galleries.

“This program has been in existence since 1978,” said Swanson. “It has evolved as the needs of [Duke’s] staff and patients’ needs have evolved. I would like to see it be sustained through the growth of Duke Hospital and as the hospital grows, I would like for us to meet the needs of the patients that continue to come here.”

Currently, Arts and Health is in the process of creating a new coloring book and hosting music and dance performances to celebrate their 40th anniversary in 2018. This summer, the organization will have its 2017 Spring and Summer Lunchtime Concerts at Duke Hospital, starting May 3 with the Hawaiian string band Eno Islanders.

For information about Arts and Health at Duke, visit their website at 

This story was written by Tia Mitchell, communications intern for the Department of Medicine.

Photo courtesy of Arts and Health at Duke.