Arts and Culture | Local

Tucson community generosity inspires hospital’s healing art therapy program

Lauren Rabb, left, and Jacquelyn Feller stand before “Untitled Rainbow,” donated to Tucson Medical Center by artist Bob Kray II. It hangs near TMC’s south orthopedic unit entrance. (Debe Campbell)

Healing literally surrounds you upon entering Tucson Medical Center. The largest single-story hospital in the U.S. has nearly eight miles of hallways that have transformed into an expansive art gallery through the TMC Healing Arts Program, curated by Lauren Rabb who, like many in this story, is a member of the Tucson Jewish community.

The Healing Arts Program began in 2014 to help patients heal in surroundings that inspire, encourage and cheer. Tucsonans Doris and Len Coris donated a large art collection to the hospital foundation, planting the seed for the healing arts program. Nearly 1,000 donated artworks now grace the halls on the main hospital campus, off-campus patient units and clinics. “It’s not what you think of as medical office art, it is quality art,” Rabb enthuses. Next month, the program will hang its 1,000th piece of art, by Dr. Larry Haas, during a special celebration and reception.

Recent research shows that art in hospitals makes everyone feel better — reducing pain and anxiety, speeding recovery and often shortening hospital stays. TMC’s well-designed art program improves the environment for patients, visitors and staff, Rabb says.

“There’s a magic that happens between the art and the viewer, a space where the human spirit soars. What better place to have that experience than in a hospital,” says Esther M. Sternberg, M.D., local author of “The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions.” She is the research director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, and has done extensive study on brain–immune interactions and the effects of the brain’s stress response on health.

In the late 20th century, scientists began studying how space affects both mental and physical health. As a National Institute of Health researcher, Sternberg chronicles research on the neural pathways that connect sensory perception of the environment with the ability to heal. She concluded, for example, that noise induces stress, which can impede healing.

“While patients are receiving the exact, same care now as prior to the [healing arts] program, they feel they’re getting better care from the staff,” Rabb says. The nursing staff use art for exercise or cognitive engagement, suggesting ambulatory patients go on an art walk or start a conversation about a piece of artwork. “The works cause conversations and reduce stress,” Rabb adds. The hospital staff and volunteers also use artworks as landmarks for directional purposes.

This is a permanent exhibit, notes Rabb. All the works are donated by artists, collectors, creative staff members, surgeons who find a new artistic talent in retirement, and nurses. Forty-five professional photographers who donated works also allow unlimited use of their images. Rabb meets with nursing units to ask what images reflect the environment they want to create for their area. Donated art must be upbeat, pleasant, happy images, exhibiting no negative behavior, such as smoking or injury. Large sizes are preferred because of the massive spaces Rabb has to fill. It costs about $500 to prepare, frame, and install each piece, including creating signage detailing the art, the artist and the donor. Every penny of cost comes from donors, says Rabb.

“People give for a number of reasons but the art donations are eligible for tax credit at fair market value. Most donors give because they have had some direct experience with TMC or want to give to the community in general,” Rabb says.

A recent addition to the healing program is a group of medical musicians. These part-time professional musicians stroll the hallways and visit patient units playing the harp, guitars and violins. “This benefits not only patients but also staff and family members,” says Rabb. “The musicians are attuned to the environment as they play and can change the mood on the floor in 10 seconds.” Jewish community member Rica Spivak sponsors two of the musicians in memory of her late husband, Harvey.

When Jacquelyn Feller retired as a nurse practitioner, she was drawn to her other love, art. She trained as a docent at Tucson Museum of Art, where she met Rabb. When Rabb moved from TMA to TMC, Feller kept in touch and was excited to join her as a volunteer in the art program. “It was the perfect marriage of both worlds, the art of medicine and the medicine of art,” says Feller.

Last year, Rabb and Feller started conducting monthly art tours for the public on Mondays. Each tour encompasses about a mile of exhibits. Many renowned artists from Tucson and around the world are represented, including a group known as the Tucson 7 — Bob Kuhn, Ken Riley, Duane Bryers, Harley Brown, Howard Terpning, Tom Hill and Don Crowley — as well as Jim Waid and Lauri Kaye. The Corises also are donating a dozen sculptures to the gardens, to be installed soon, says Rabb.

Rabb calls her curatorship the best job she has ever had. “It’s wonderful having people that are grateful for what you do,” she says. Feller calls it a celebration of the human spirit. “The generosity and talent of our Tucson community have helped to fill the walls with beautiful art and the sounds of music,” she says. “It has touched the lives of patients, families, visitors and staff.”

The reception and celebration for hanging the 1,000th artwork will be Oct. 10 from 4 to 6 p.m. in the women’s center entrance lobby. RSVP to A free TMC art tour for AJP readers is available Oct. 21 at 10 a.m. The tour will cover about one mile, with rest stops. It is open those over age 12. To participate, RSVP to Rabb for tour details at or 444-0363.