A VISION OF HEALING AND PEACE: With a gallery renamed in her honor, former art program director Trudy Wiesenberger reflects on building the University Hospitals collection
The Trudy Wiesenberger Gallery at University Hospitals may be the busiest gallery you’ve never heard of. Curator Thomas Huck says 300 to 400 people pass through every hour of every day, with greater numbers at lunch, as as patients, their families, doctors, nurses and other staff make their way between Lerner Tower, Lakeside Hospital, Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, and the cafeteria. It’s not a typical gallery or a museum audience, lingering over the images and considering their implications, but that is not really the point. Originally known as the Humphrey Atrium Gallery (for the Humphrey Building), the Wiesenberger Gallery is part of the UH art program, which means to play a role in the healing of patients. It was recently renovated and renamed, on the occasion of University Hospitals’ 150th anniversary. The occasion was also marked by the in-house publication of a handsome new coffee table book, which serves as a catalog of selections from the UH collection.
What’s hanging in the gallery now is a collection of photo-litho and Chine Colle prints, which the gallery’s namesake, Trudy Wiesenberger made with master printer Karen Beckwith. Wiesenberger ‘s prints read almost as abstractions. Indeed, a person simply passing through the hall will see mostly the muted color and the shadows of form. But a closer look shows the peaceful substance—the horizon in a landscape, the jagged zig zag of mountains, the tumbling mist of a waterfall, or even the folds of fabric adorned with a pattern of snowflakes or stars. The landscapes and fabric are from her travels in Zimbabwe, Viet Nam, Thailand, Greece, Laos, and elsewhere.
This exhibit, Vignettes and Vistas (on view June 24 – September 1), is the first time Wiesenberger ‘s work has been exhibited in the gallery that now bears her name. That’s noteworthy because she not only curated the gallery from its beginning in 1988, but conceived the UH art program, and as a consultant, was its director for 23 years. Huck became director of the gallery and the UH art program when she retired in 2011.
Even in retirement, Wiesenberger continues to think about and support projects relevant to the UH collection. She plans that all proceeds from the sale of works in the show will go to support the creation of a recorded audio tour. “We are thinking of selecting 15 works of art as stops on the tour. This could mean walking from Seidman to Lerner, all the way down to Rainbow. My thought is also to do a child’s version, so the child could go through with a parent and hear it in ways they can understand.”
Wiesenberger ‘s spark of inspiration for what became the UH art program dates to the middle or even the early eighties, when she –a collage artist, fabric designer, and an art educator for the Cleveland Museum of Art–brought her daughter to Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital. During the visit, she was stricken by the fact that that there was nothing on the walls, and that a bit of art might help patients by brightening the mood and offering a bit of restorative recreation for their minds. Not long after that, opportunity knocked—or perhaps she created it—at a dinner party. She was seated by chance next to Dr. James Block, who was then the new president of University Hospitals. Block was leading the hospital through some improvements to the facilities.
“He was very excited about a fitness center and a day care center for hospital employees,” Wiesenberger says. “As he was talking I recalled my experience in the children’s hospital, and wondered how could it be that a hospital called “Rainbow Babies and Children’s” could have no color and childlike imagery? So I started expressing some thoughts about how simple it would be to get some art in the walls. By the end of dinner he asked me to come in and meet someone at the hospital, which I did. I was asked if I would create some kind of an art program.”
It wasn’t quite an experiment, but more like the early adoption of some new thinking in health care. Other hospitals, including the Cleveland Clinic, also had collections, and were beginning to build them intentionally. There are plenty of roles art has played in medicine – to brighten the mood, to serve as an agent of calm, to offer a touchstone for patients’ minds. At UH the art was to further the healing, educational, and discovery goals represented in the hospital’s mission. As she began to research art programs at other hospitals, Wiesenberger learned one of the most famous examples which is the origin story of the famous collection at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. In 1966, LA businessman and art collector Frederick R. Weisman was in a coma after a head injury. He regained consciousness after a few days, but was still dazed and struggling with his memory—even with remembering his wife’s name. She—Marcia Weisman– began to bring art from their private collection to his hospital room, in an effort to stimulate his memory. One day a breakthrough moment came when he recognized a painting by Jackson Pollock, and spoke the artist’s name out loud.
In the beginning, Wiesenberger built the UH collection by working her connections with local artists. “There were so many people doing great work at the time,” she says. And so she booked the Humphrey Atrium Gallery with solo shows: Paintings by the likes of Bonnie Dolin and Gloria Plevin; Prints by Phyllis Sloane and Phyllis Seltzer; constructions by John Pearson. This is a tiny fraction of the multitudes who exhibited there.
A tour of the multiple hospital facilities in the UH system reveals others. More than 20 winners of the Cleveland Arts Prize are represented. There are pieces by George Kozmon, Kristen Cliffel, Barry Underwood, Tom Balbo, Masumi Hayashi, Gary Bukovnik, Brent Kee Young, Judith Salomon, La Wilson, Don Harvey, Cathie Bleck, Fred Schmidt, Angelica Pozo, Brinsley Tyrrell, David Bergholz, Janet Century Thomas Roese, Rita Montlack, Moe Brooker, Don Harvey, Joe O’Sickey, Ed Mieczkowski, Laurence Channing, Herbert Ascherman, Jr., Audra Skuodas, and an enormous number of other regionally and nationally significant artists. They mingle with works of Joan Miro, Dale Chihuli, and Julian Stanczak. Alltogether, the collection works as a survey of late twentieth and early twenty-first century’s art, focused on Northeast Ohio, with plenty of reference points for context from afar.
Building an audience for a hospital gallery was no small feat, especially in the late eighties and the nineties. University Circle had its major institutions, but was not nearly the hive of activity that it is now. MOCA was in an old Sears building on Carnegie. What we know as Uptown did not exist. A gallery in the heart of a research- and education-oriented hospital was just about as removed as a gallery could be. Wiesenberger found ways to engage people associated with the hospital itself. She created an annual juried exhibit of works by employees. She also presented shows of work made by patients, facilitated by art therapists. “Those were always very moving, because you knew what you were looking at,” she says, without elaborating that works by patients are often created in very challenging times, a product of coping, or perhaps of recovery.
She invited other organizations to be part of the program, too, presenting group shows with artists of the Red Dot Project and Zygote Press. From a friend working at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, she learned that organization had an art collection—including a series of Andy Warhol silkscreens–and no place to show it. The result was an exhibit of Warhol’s “Endangered Species” series. “Large, and fabulous,” Wiesenberger says in describing the CMNH Warhols.
The growth of health care in the region—and the expansion of hospitals like UH—lead to more and larger opportunities for artists over time. More lobbies, more rooms, more walls, more space to fill with art. Not long after the UH gallery and art program were founded, the hospital invited Wiesenberger to meet with the architects who were designing a new building, to talk about equipping it with art. This would put the program in high gear, facilitated by a line item in the budget– “just like for carpeting, and couches, and lamps,” Wiesenberger says.
“ I had never done anyting of this scale. How did I figure it out? I met with lots of caregivers, and listened hard, and used sensitivity, and tried to project what I would want to see. People [in hospitals] are concerned and scared and intimidated . . . I asked myself what would make me feel good if I had to spend time there?”
So she looked for work that would be uplifting, reassuring, calming. She also began to look beyond Cleveland for new art.
Wiesenberger ‘s last major project was to plan art for Vision 2010, a five-year strategic plan that included $750 million in construction: five major new medical facilities, including Ahuja Medical Center and the Seidman Cancer Center, as well as expansion at several others. The new buildings brought opportunities for different kinds of art, especially on a larger scale. Older buildings had lower ceilings and narrower hallways, which necessitated smaller pieces. The newer buildings would come with open spaces, higher ceilings, in some cases rooms with lofty space open to stories above.
Just as Vision 2010 was nearing completion in the year for which it was named, Wiesenberger —along with Cleveland Clinic collection curator Joanne Cohen—were together awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize. The growth of both of these collections has added significantly to the Cleveland art economy. University hospitals has nearly 2500 pieces in its collection. The larger Cleveland Clinic collection has a little more than double that.
By the time Vision 2010 was nearing completion, Weisenberger had served as director of the art program under three different presidents. The idea for her own exhibit in the renovated gallery that would eventually take her name begins with a story that will sound familiar to anyone who has held a job through a transition in company ownership or leadership, or across the span of a major initiative—like Vision 2010 was. “I was always sure that when I finished a big project, that they would call me in and say thank you very much, your services are no longer needed. So one day I got called by a secretery that Dr. [Fred] Rothstein (who was then president of University Hospitals) wanted to see me. I went in thinking they are going to give me my walking papers. But no, he said he had seen my work somewhere. I think it was at Heights Arts. And he said to me, ‘Trudy, why haven you shown your own work in the gallery?’ I said Fred, I haven’t had time to do any work. You have all these buildings going up. I’ve been busy.’ That is how Vignettes and Vistas came about.”
When Wiesenberger retired from the gallery in 2011, Thomas Huck (who for fifteen years ran Avanti Gallery in Little Italy) became curator of the University Hospitals collection, and of what would become the Trudy Wiesenberger Gallery. Huck has already begun to make his own mark on the collection.
One visible result is an installation by Melissa Daubert in the main lobby of Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital. The concept originated just before Huck’s arrival, but Huck brought it to completion during a year of meetings and planning sessions. It consists of a large group of furry creatures, nesting around a column that reaches up two floors. It’s as whimsical as it is amitious, with internal lighting and sound effects to welcome patients and visitors.
Huck’s position is a sign of the hospital’s growing and continuing commitment to art as a component of health care. The hospital established the Angie Fowler Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Institute, which spans multiple floors, including a rooftop garden, on the main campus, and it was his role to fill it with colorful art. Artists include Kristen Cliffel, Martha Cliffel, Elizabeth Murray, Jennifer Bartlett, Alex Katz, Leroy Neiman, Steven Knapp, and Charles Fazzino.
“What makes me so personally validated and gratified is that they are continuing with this program,” Wiesenberger says. Looking ahead to the future of her own work after the inaugural show in the gallery that now bears her name, she sees an open playing field. “I don’t know what is next in terms of my own work. I am very energized by the response. This was a wonderful opportunity.”