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Volunteer curator has a vision for Children's Hospital as art gallery

Scott Propeack's world is art – but it just expanded to health care.

Propeack is a 19-year fixture at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, serving as chief curator and associate director. These days, he's also the art center's interim co-director.

Across town, he is also volunteering as curator at the John R. Oishei Children's Hospital, which will open this fall on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. He is helping to guide the selection and presentation of signature artworks in the 12-story, $270 million hospital.

"It has re-energized me and made me feel so much more a part of everything that is going on in the city," Propeack said. "Not just in the arts, but also in health care."

Propeack cannot stop talking about the themed floors planned for the hospital, particularly one of his favorites, the City of Good Neighbors, which will link to pedestrian bridges connecting the hospital to other buildings on campus.

"I have a strong belief in art in public spaces, in where we work and where we live," Propeack said.

Q: How did you get tapped to oversee art at Oishei?

A: Cynthia Ciminelli has been shepherding this entire project. It was her idea based on her conversations with Allegra Jaros, the hospital president. They wanted to make the experience of Oishei Children's Hospital different than the experience the hospital has always been. Not only to bring in a sense of the community, but also through cultural resources of the community – Burchfield Penney, the Buffalo Zoo, the Martin House, Shea's. … Cynthia asked me if there was any way I could participate.

Q: What has been some of your inspiration in planning for art at the new hospital?

A: We've looked to Roswell Park and to Cleveland Clinic as the two leading hospitals in incorporating artwork in their space. Cleveland Clinic has a world-renowned art collection. Amazing works. Incredibly valuable, collectible artworks that their donors have funded and donated to them over the years. Cleveland set the bar for every other hospital moving forward.

Q: How important is artwork in a medical setting?

A: There's over 30 years of study that prove that artwork in hospitals aids in the healing process, and if we can do anything to help, take away the stress, or give something to get people's minds off what they're experiencing, and, to create a scenario where healing happens quicker – then we're doing things with artwork that I don't think people realize is possible.

Q: How is it to wear two big hats at once?

A: The Burchfield Penney is a museum dedicated to the artists of Western New York. So, one of the great things about this institution and why it links up so well with Oishei Children's Hospital is that we both work on creating a better sense of community and togetherness. We need those anchors in our city so people come together in good times and in stressful times.

Q: What is your game plan for art at Oishei?

A: The architects designed a theme for each of the floors that was very generic and could be used in any hospital, anywhere, but it helps with people understanding where they are. (Everyone) came up with themes for each of the floors that include things like City of Lights. Of course, it's Buffalo, so there is a sports floor. One of the things we feel really defines this area, is water. So there's a water floor ... The other thing people take great pride in, sometimes, is seasons. There's a floor of seasons. There's an imagination floor and a discovery floor. The patients on those floors are usually there for long periods of time.

We know when we're sick and we're housebound for any reason, you get frustrated. You want that sense of calm and want to be able to think about things. Anything that sends your mind in a direction that is not the concern for the moment, is terrific.

Q: What's the lobby going to be like?

A: The first floor is sort of playing off a theme of revitalized Buffalo. First and foremost, it's a hospital. But on the first floor when you walk in, there's a lot of activity, you have the emergency area, the visitors' desk, and there's an incredible mural that was created by tens of thousands of local kids. It's a digital wall, sort of a 'faces of Buffalo' piece. They've already gotten all the drawings from kids from schools all over the region. Kids can come in and can look up their drawing. The images all come together and create a collage that is a larger image. The fact they can also find themselves in it, is really important.

Q: What else about the themed floors jumps out at you?

A: As much as the lobby is important, the City of Good Neighbors floor is as important. It is the floor that connects to Buffalo General, to Conventus, to the new buildings. It's very intentional to have City of Good Neighbors as a floor that everybody walks through.

Q: Tell me about the art.

A: We wanted to have signature works on each of the floors. We started out with 12 because there's 12 floors. But then we quickly realized, we have so many great artists in this community that we wanted to work with a variety of artists. ... One does a lot of abstract work. Another is a photographer who creates wonderful images of people in Buffalo in areas that are so distinctly us, like the waterfront.

One took a photo of the Electric Tower during fireworks on New Year's Eve. There's also two younger photographers. They're treating it like their favorite assignment. They're getting up at 3 o'clock in the morning and going to Niagara Falls and taking pictures of the sunrise coming up over the falls. The artists feel so honored and are so committed.


Q: How many artists are you working with?

A: I'm working with over 30 artists, at least, plus collectors. I assembled a list of artists and opened it to any artists in the community who wanted to participate.

Q: How are you funding the project?

A: It's a blend of donations and purchases, but the purchases primarily cover the cost of the making of the artwork, mostly material and time. Right now, we've raised in the value of artwork donations and cash donations, close to $1 million.

The important thing to realize about the project is that it doesn't have a beginning and an end. It's an ongoing program. Ultimately, we'd like to establish a fund that covers the art in Children's Hospital into the future.

With any space in our homes, we realize that we if we put something on the wall and it's been there for 5 or 10 years, it starts to look like it's been there for 5 or 10 years. I know when it's time to take something down. We never want the artwork to get to the point where it reflects negatively on the place.

Q: How challenging is it to balance the museum environment versus a hospital?

A: We have an arts committee with over 20 people who review the work – doctors, nurses and parents – I don't say yes or no. They have the final yes or no, because they know what the patient experience is like. They have an understanding of what their kids like. We also have a kids' art committee. It's interesting to see what adults think kids will like, versus what kids actually say they'll like.

Q: What types of art will we see?

A: Primarily framed pieces of artwork for the walls, some sculpture works in the space in the hallways, in the waiting rooms.

Q: What about the patient rooms?

A: There's an artist, Caitlin Krumm, who makes images that she calls Trendy Buffalos. They are buffaloes as baseball players and all sorts of different characters. She offered to make available her work for the patient rooms. The kids love her work.

Probably one of the most exciting things is Oishei working with the Buffalo Zoo. They are working on developing a zoo TV. There will be a live feed from the Buffalo Zoo so you can look at the animals and see if they're feeding the polar bears or the river otters. It is a great way for the patients to actually see something that is not the same channels on TV if they are stuck in their rooms. I just think it's fascinating. I want it in my own home.


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