The past five years have seen an explosion in new hospital construction, and many of these new facilities have highly organized arts programs to fill their blank buildings with sculptures, murals, paintings, even interactive art exhibits. Commissioned art for hospitals is nothing new, of course. But several recent hospital projects suggest new approaches and a more serious attention to the theories connecting public art to public spaces in hospitals.

One theory is that art is simply good for healing patients’ minds and bodies [learn more in Alyssa Ford’s Healthful Research, also from Issue 48]. At the same time, percent-for-art programs (where extant) have dedicated budgets to public art. San Francisco’s ordinance, for instance, requires 2 percent of new construction budgets be spent on public art; for the city’s Laguna Honda Hospital, that translated into a dedicated $3.9 million art budget.

Public art also serves “a propaganda role for the hospital,” argues Jane Macnaughton, a Durham University medical humanities professor, in her influential 2007 study “Art in Hospital Spaces,” published in the International Journal of Cultural Policy. Macnaughton argues that art gives an impression that a hospital is forward-thinking and technologically sophisticated. “It is art with a political spin,” she writes. She also argues that the increase in art-filled hospitals reflects a new reality for health-care facilities: that they are becoming public spaces like city squares and shopping malls, and thus when they are “aestheticized” with art, they are a symbol of progress for their communities.

While it may burnish an institution’s image, art in hospitals (as opposed to museums) popularizes what might otherwise be rarified or exclusive media. “By commissioning art specifically for hospitals, we’re doing something very new and very old at the same time,” says Nancy Rosen, art curator at the Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore. “We’re taking art back to its fundamental roots, when art was neither distant nor untouchable, but very personal, and meant to serve a practical purpose.”

The five hospitals that follow have made public art a major part of their identity—and, in so doing, provide examples of how art and healing are intertwined in our modern age.

Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland

The new Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore is massive: more than 1.6 million square feet, 560 private rooms, and 33 operating rooms, ensconced in two 12-story towers. It’s the first building in Baltimore’s history to cost more than $1 billion. It’s also turning heads for its emphasis on original art. More than 70 U.S. artists were commissioned to make 500 paintings, sculptures, and murals.

Nancy Rosen, curator for Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center, one of the two new towers, says she wasn’t sure how so many artists would feel about being “directed” by an arts committee. Forty artists were specifically asked to create works based on popular children’s books, such as Curious George and Goodnight Moon.

“But the artists immediately responded,” says Rosen. “They were inspired by the book idea, and they were inspired by the idea of working on a hospital. Many of them told me stories about the people in their lives. They said, ‘My eleven-year-old has a heart condition,’ or ‘My father-in-law is being treated for cancer.’”

A little extra money made the process that much more fun. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $120 million, most of which was spent on art, including a menagerie of super-sized fiberglass sculptures created by artist and theater set designer Robert Israel. These animal sculptures include a winged purple cow, a pair of cubist rhinos, and a school of yellow puffer fish that look like startled Cheep-Cheeps from Super Mario Bros. The sculptures were made by a specialty set-design company in Seattle and trucked across the country. Israel’s 22-foot Ostrich (2008—2012) is a primary attention-getter, complemented by a massive blue ostrich egg that sits perched on the information desk.

The exterior of the building is also a giant art installation—the biggest of Spencer Finch’s career. Finch, a Brooklyn artist who likes to work with light and color, spent months in planning meetings with the hospital’s architects and engineers. The Finch-designed exterior skin is made up of two-layered glass shadow boxes, each framed in aluminum. One layer has a fused pattern that looks like a hybrid of brushstrokes and rippling water. The other layer is made of colored glass in 26 hues Finch selected from Monet’s favorite palette. (The artist was inspired by a trip to Giverny, Monet’s restored gardens in France.) On sunny days, the building looks like a confetti celebration of rippling color; on cloudy days, the shadow-box skin makes the building downright somber. It’s an apt play of sorrow and joy—just like a hospital, where people die and are also born.

Norton Cancer Institute–Downtown Louisville, Kentucky

Ellie Nunn is a spirited seven-year-old who loves soccer, dance, volleyball, and her two little sisters. She also spent nearly two years fighting acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of blood cancer. During her childhood, Ellie went through chemotherapy, painful spinal taps, and countless trips to the hospital. But through it all, she maintained her sunny disposition. Her mom, Deann Nunn, quit her job so she could stay with her “Ellie Cat” through every appointment and hospital stay.

Now Ellie’s bond with her mom is immortalized in glass at the new 65,000-square-foot Norton Cancer Institute in downtown Louisville. Artist Ché Rhodes, an art professor at the University of Louisville, cast a block of glass from a mold of Ellie’s small hand lying gently on top of her mom’s. The piece is one of 36 similar casts—a patient holding hands with her favorite nurse, a retiring surgeon with a man he operated on, and an adult daughter with her aged mother. The glass blocks form a partition wall in the patient waiting area called Hands of Connection (2011).

“I’m not really an ‘art person’ but it was really a big deal for me to see my hand holding on to Ellie’s,” says Deann Nunn. “It felt almost like a trophy. Ellie had finished her last rounds of treatment, and seeing that glass block, I said to myself, ‘We did it. My little girl was so strong, and we did it.’”

Hands of Connection is one of several major art pieces commissioned for the new cancer center. Lynnie Meyer, the chief development officer at Norton Healthcare, says the hospital’s arts committee sought Louisville artists willing to get involved with the patients.

Artist Kenneth von Roenn Jr., whose mother struggled with cancer, took that charge seriously. He spent days interviewing patients about their cancer journeys before sketching out Life Nurtured (2011), a 30-by-30-foot stained glass window that overlooks the hospital meditation garden. In vivid blues and oranges, the window includes forms related to growth: a tree, flowers, a nautilus shell. Scattered about the window are inlaid glass jewels that “symbolically represent what I think of as seeds of hope,” wrote von Roenn in his artist statement.

Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Grand Rapids, Michigan 

Administrators at the $286 million Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, enlisted more than 9,000 Michigan children over a two-year span to make artworks for the new 444,000-square-foot hospital. Scott LaFontsee, owner of LaFontsee Galleries in Grand Rapids, selected about 10 percent of the art, or 2,000 pieces, to be permanently installed in the hospital. LaFontsee and his staff of 12 custom-painted frames for about 800 of the artworks.

The effort was truly a community affair involving several arts nonprofits, youth groups, and schools. LaFontsee also ran a series of free workshops at his gallery that encouraged kids to make 3D paper flowers, stamp cutouts, and clay sculptures.

For one piece, children at the East Martin Christian School wrote their wishes and words of comfort for future patients at the hospital. Local artist Elaine Tolsma-Harlow fashioned the strips, which bore sayings like “I wish you get better” and “I wish you to laugh and smile and just have a good day,” into mixed-media pieces called Nest of Hope.

Kids also collaborated on a colorful, 160-foot-long bricolage mural at the center of the main lobby. They helped mosaic artists Tracy Van Duinen and Todd Osborne define happiness: birds, tall sunflowers, sparkles, and clouds were a few of their suggestions. The sunny piece has an appropriate title: Happiness Is (2010).

Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital Chicago, Illinois

At 23 floors, the Ann & Robert Lurie Children’s Hospital is the tallest hospital in the world—and art is installed on nearly every wall and surface.

Up the driveway you’ll see Healing Waters, a sculpture by Mark Davis. Step into the lobby and you’ll find near life-size sculptures of a mother humpback whale and her calf, by artist Victor Joyner. At the elevator bank is a floor-to-ceiling image of an undersea kelp forest by Aquamoon, a public art collaborative in Chicago. The image on the wall has a cool feature—it’s connected with a projection system that allows for water effects and various sea critters to emerge and disappear on the walls. The second floor features more Aquamoon art: three fantastical coral sculptures that look like something out of a Pixar movie.

The playful atmosphere is the result of more than 20 partnerships with cultural institutions around Chicago, including the Chicago Art Institute, which installed 49 reproductions of paintings, sculptures, and prints from its collection, spanning themes of families, animals, and nature. Chicago artist-illustrator Steve Musgrave was commissioned to paint a massive mural on the 19th floor, focused on animal families. On the 12th floor, multimedia artist John Manning created an installation of 15 flat screens that show the faces of children. Also on the 12th floor, a set of 16 stained glass windows by Chicago artist David Lee Csicsko depict young trees and water, a stunning feature of the hospital’s interfaith chapel.

The hospital also commissioned more than 100 pieces of art meant to be displayed at a child’s eye level, including a three-dimensional box on the 21st floor with peepholes. Short patients and visitors can peek inside for a look at the dollhouse dioramas and imaginative dreamscapes.

Laguna Honda Hospital San Francisco, California

In 2005, San Francisco’s health department shuttered the landmark 1926 Spanish Revival Laguna Honda, and the city subsequently passed a bond to build a new hospital, which sits in San Francisco’s West of Twin Peaks neighborhood on a 62-acre campus.

The facility that replaced the beloved old hospital is interesting for the way art has been seamlessly integrated into the space. Instead of a generic gate into the parking garage, for example, there’s a bifold gate of stainless steel, brushed with a water ripple and cloud design by artist Diana Pumpelly Bates. The beige safety handrails found in virtually every facility across America are here replaced with cast bronze corridor handrails in reddish-brown and oxidized copper hues, designed by artist Cliff Garten. “The hospital planners really did try to think about the expressive potential of the infrastructure,” says Garten.

Indeed, art serves as the very organizing principle of the hospital. Residents of the long-term care facility don’t live on the “Blue” floor or the “Orange” floor. They live on the Diane Andrews Hall floor (glass mosaic artist) or the Terry Hoff floor (oil painter). Each artist selected for a floor was responsible for the entire floor, so each level truly showcases the identity of the creative mind behind it. Residents who step off the elevator on the wrong floor don’t just know they’re in the wrong place. They feel it.

The hospital also maintains a balance between old and new. New York artist Owen Smith worked with the architecture team to design custom niches for his ceramic tile mosaics The Four Elements (2010) and Building the Iron Horse (2010). Both murals—of muscled workers laboring on the Golden Gate Bridge, and a determined farmer turning earth with his plow and horse—were inspired by the work of Glen Wessel, a WPA-era artist who made the lobby murals for the old Laguna Honda.

There’s plenty of contemporary art, too, including Sky-dancing (2008), a massive installation by Japanese sculptor Takenobu Igarashi. Strung across the hospital’s outside pavilion are oversized aluminum blossoms suspended on aircraft cables.

“It was important to us to commission art that remembered the old Laguna Honda, but also signaled to the city that this was a new era,” says Kate Patterson, the public art lead at the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Alyssa Ford is a freelance writer in Minneapolis who writes about architecture and design.

From Public Art Review #48, where this article appeared as “Healing Arts.”