The Austin Chronicle

More Than Something Hanging on the Wall

Robert Bonar on the Dell Children's collection

By Rebecca S. Cohen, January 18, 2008, Arts

The most prominent work of art in the modestly cluttered office of Robert Bonar, president and CEO of Dell Children's Medical Center, is a contemporary lithograph given to the hospital by visiting Japanese physicians that depicts rabbits and frogs cavorting amid indecipherable text against a vivid red background. With a grin, Bonar says he chose to keep it in his office because he has no idea what the words mean. He doesn't want to shock anybody, least of all the Daughters of Charity, the Catholic order that founded Seton Hospital and has provided health-care services in Austin for more than a hundred years. Today approximately a dozen Daughters still work for the hospital, including Sister Teresa George, vice president and chief operating officer. "They are important in guiding us on our mission," explains Bonar. "They remind us why we are here."

Austin Chronicle: So how did being part of the Seton Family of Hospitals, a faith-based group, impact the hospital's collection?

Robert Bonar: Catholic health care is fairly ecumenical. We take care of anybody who comes through the door, regardless of their faith tradition. So when we were planning the hospital, we struggled with how to do that properly. We put together an art committee [with] a lot of content experts, excellent artists, and folks who had technical understanding about art.

AC: And you were part of that process?

RB: My main role on the committee was to worry excessively and to ask, "How much is that?" to make sure we had resources to do what the committee wanted to do. There were folks like Michael Ray Charles [artist and professor of art at UT], Judith Sims [art school and site director of AMOA at Laguna Gloria], Kati Hernandez Cowles [artist, educator, and curator]. We also had Daughters of Charity. We knew reverential art had to be part of it, but we didn't want to be in a position that others may feel unwelcome because it was overdone. Sister Joanne Vasa formed a subgroup, and we hired a liturgical consultant to work with us to figure out a way to tastefully commission the reverential art so that it would be the right kind of art in the right place but at the same time not interfere with what the art committee is doing for the rest of the hospital.

AC: Where would someone look for reverential art?

RB: We wanted that artwork to be in and around the chapel. But we wanted to be careful about what we did outside the chapel and in the patient-care areas and in the patients' rooms. We wanted it to be healing, uplifting, to inspire a sense of hope, not a sense of dread or not a sense that, well, I might die. Now, that may be the case, but we don't want that conveyed through the artwork in a child's room. We want that to be conveyed at the proper time [in the proper way]. The children's hospital plays a special role in the community. There's only one. We have to be careful that we have a facility that is welcoming to all.

In terms of how we talk about spirituality here, we are really referring to the oneness of the human race, all of us. So we worked hard to establish an environment that was contemplative and allowed families to be lifted up and be hopeful but also respecting their faith traditions and providing them spaces that were safe. So we have a lot of spaces in the hospital where families can go to ... some would call it worship; others would say pray; some might say meditate; some would say think. Some would say have quiet time. We hoped to reflect that in our artwork.

AC: Both Sandra Gregor and Judith Sims praised your leadership in bringing this art collection to the hospital.

RB: I appreciate that, but my philosophy is [that] one of the most important things you can do as a leader is to know what you don't know and then surround yourself with really smart people who do know what you wish you knew. That's why we got all these people involved and hired Sandra, because we knew it was going to take a lot of time. We wanted someone who could work full-time on it and coordinate the efforts of the art committee. I just sat in there and watched that symphony play. I figured I'm just the compost in that garden.

AC: You made a major commitment to purchasing art early on.

RB: The whole project was $200 million; the art was $716,102.39 to be exact [with an additional $178,957 in discounts and donations]. We thought with 788 pieces, we were going to have tons of art, [but] after we moved in, we found some hallways that were pretty bare-naked. There's a tunnel connecting this big building and the doctors' office building. That tunnel is very sterile – 400-feet-long, white, and shiny. A child was being brought over, and he asked his mother, "Is this where they take the children to die?" So I said, "Well, we've got to get that fixed." We are going to do something with that. Maybe some children's art or fresco paintings to brighten it up a little bit. So we're still working.

AC: What's next for the collection?

RB: We're going to most likely hire a curator. It's going to take some work to maintain the artwork that we have already, and we're looking at additional acquisitions. There's more we want to do to work with the schools to generate children's art we can rotate as time goes by. We've talked about having self-guided tours of the art in the hospital. We could have a booklet, or we've even kicked around the idea of having audio tours that folks could use while they're here. There's a lot we can do to make sure we expose as many people as we can to the artwork in the hospital, because there's a story behind each one of them – either about the artist or the piece itself and where it came from and what it depicts and why. I just don't want it to become something colorful hanging on the wall that people glance at and move on. There's so much more to it than that.

AC: So tell me about those distinctive white nurses' caps or whatever they are outside the building.

RB: [Chuckles] Those aren't nurses' caps. Those are actually models of the old coronet that the Daughters of Charity used to wear. We wanted to have a visible linkage with the Daughters, but we didn't want it to be an overtly Christian symbol. We wanted it to be meaningful to the people for whom it could be meaningful. Others will say that's an interesting piece of artwork. You see art speaks in different ways to different people.

AC: Amen.

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