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The art of the new University Medical Center

Renee Peck interviews Stacey Serro for WWNO public radio:

Stacey Serro

Stacey Serro

Not all visitors to the new University Medical Center arrive for health reasons. Some come just to see the art. Haunting large-scale photographs of old houses and nighttime bayous by Frank Relle; swirling abstracts by New Orleanians Rhenda Saporito and Elise Allen. Whimsical painted wooden balloons by toy designer Sean O’Meallie; large mathematically inspired geometric images with healing in mind created by Martin Benson. Rebecca Rebouche's original swan painting that was made into a wall fabric for Anthropologie.

It’s arguably one of the most comprehensive collections of Louisiana artists anywhere, and the team that put it all together did so on a shoestring budget, and virtually on the fly.

In January, interior designer Stacey Serro got a call from Louisiana Children’s Medical Center, telling her that she had landed the contract to select the artwork for the new University Medical Center.

They agreed to her proposal to place one painting an average of every 10 feet throughout the hospital. With 2.1 million square feet of space, that equated to more than 4,000 pieces of art. Oh, and she had a budget of $375 per item, including framing, and needed to complete the job by the end of summer.

“I needed 15 months and they gave me five,” says Serro with a laugh. “My task was to create an artwork program throughout the medical center that would celebrate the art of Louisiana.”

Anyone who walks the halls and public spaces of the new facility will agree that Serro and her team worked miracles. A native New Orleanian who has specialized in commercial design, she had some institutional chops; she has designed spaces for the PGA Tour, Lufthansa, Bank of America and, locally, Touro hospital.

But this assignment put art décor into a whole new category.

“I had to break it into bite-sized pieces,” says Serro. “I needed a core team, and the best people just started falling into my lap. We had artists, designers, one art curator.”

Working with six other designers and two assistants, she got to work on those bite-sized bits. The job included all of the hospital's artwork except for the handful of major pieces procured through the Percent for Art Program, which dedicates 1 percent of capital bond funding to public art.

“I took each floor and broke it down by corridor and theme, then came up with 36 sub-themes to keep it interesting. Each designer got six themes to work with. Some were generic, while others were indigenous, in the context of the melting pot.”

There were a few logistical parameters – art had to hang on the wall, couldn’t project more than 4 inches from the surface, and had to comply with the hospital’s security locking system. Otherwise, the designers were free to choose.

“We just started scouring the state,” Serro recalls. “Everyone was given an area of the state to visit, and then we hit the galleries, got a list of all the art fairs. My goal was to get as many originals as possible. There is not a single duplicate piece in this building; not one. We certainly didn’t take just anything; we had our standards.”

The next few months passed in a whirlwind of word-of-mouth networking, wheedling, deal-making. Serro set up a framing factory in her Gretna design office – “6,000 square feet of organized chaos.”

Artists around the state began to get excited about having their work on display in the new facility.

“Artists started calling us,” Serro says. “We sowed a lot of seeds and then reaped the benefits. We made no money on the works – whatever discount we managed went to the hospital. And we got them some great deals.”

They did indeed. The artworks are valued at more than $3 million. The goodwill the project created is perhaps worth more.

“We have more than 700 ambassadors for this medical center in the artists, who have taken great pride in this place.”

Works are by both emerging and established artists. “We were looking for children’s art, and found paintings in a coffeeshop by an autistic girl,” Serro says. She contacted the girl’s mother, and now dozens of her delicate drawings can be found scattered across the walls. “We have everything from that to artists like Dan Tague, whose work is in the Smithsonian.”

Most of the artists involved are living, although a few pieces by deceased artists came from estates or galleries. Ninety percent are from Louisiana, with a few from elsewhere chosen mostly for subject matter. Many artists created works specifically for the medical center, and some works were commissioned.

“With some, I’d say, can you do 50 pieces?” Serro says. “The artists were great to work with, and willing to be creative.”

Artists were given palettes to consider, from the 40 or so hues used throughout the mammoth space. And some pieces were placed with healing in mind. The clinic, for example, has mostly muted pieces, lending a calm effect. Debra Folsom’s triptych of galloping horses in the physical therapy room subtly suggests muscles and strength. If you look closely at the abstracts outside the hospital pharmacy, you’ll see capsule shapes, like colorful pills.

“Art plays a big part in the healing process,” Serro says. “And nothing sets the mood like artwork. So in an area like behavioral health, we used a lot of nature images and soothing pieces without hard edges.”

Not all spaces are so serene. The operating rooms at University Medical Center are painted in the same colors as those at the old Charity Hospital – “a little wacky, like orange and green and turquoise. Those got pieces with a contemporary edge. Institutional doesn’t mean dull anymore.”

In fact, the spaces generally are light and bright and airy, with yards of glass and shiny surfaces. Which makes it sometimes hard to hang artwork.

“One of our team members saw this projected art in a restaurant, and we called the artist to ask her to do a piece for the entry walls,” Serro says.

The result is a kaleidoscope video image of an unfolding magnolia blossom, the flower’s projected movement prompted by people walking through a motion detector.

Each painting has a small QR code below it, which visitors can scan with their smartphones to find out the artist’s and work's name and contact information. “That way, each artist gets instant recognition. It’s how this generation works. Someone sitting in a patient room can scan the artwork on the wall to find out about it.”

Most of the works veer toward the contemporary, with a lot of abstracts. Serro says that she didn’t say no to any subject matter or medium, although in a public space, one has to be careful. Anything potentially offensive is taboo, which is sometimes obvious (profanity or politics), sometimes not.

“Birds are difficult,” she says. “So many people hate birds. You don’t want wings spanned or eyes looking at you. We had to be very selective with our pelicans. And clowns are tricky, too. I don’t think we have any clowns.”

Now, with the 21-hour days, seven-day work weeks and triple shifts over, Serro and her team can stop and take a deep breath. But their success is creating more work, it seems.

“People keep asking for art tours. I was hanging the last of the balloons in the cafeteria and four people walked up and said, ‘We’re here to see the artwork.’ I said, ‘Well, you’ve come to the right person.’”

Below is a photo gallery of the University Medical Center art and the process of gathering it:

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]