Healing with Gifts of Art

Elaine Sims in front of artwork

Elaine Sims

"Art wasn't on my radar"

Although she grew up visiting the Cleveland Art Museum, Elaine Sims, director of the Gifts of Art program at the University of Michigan Health System, thought she'd end up in the sciences, which, in a way, she did. "Art wasn't on my radar," she says. After graduating from high school in 1964, Elaine entered the University of Michigan, where she planned to follow in an older brother's footsteps, and become a psychologist.

Fate and Opportunity

But after graduating with a major in education and a minor in psychology in 1968, Elaine decided to travel, get married and take a job at the U-M Physics and Astronomy Library. She later managed the Natural History Museum gift shop and worked in the Development Office at the School of Art & Design. At that time she had also received her master's in Medical Consumer Affairs-with the goal of becoming a patient advocate-when fate and opportunity stepped in. Around the country, a handful of arts programs were springing up in academic medical centers, and Elaine took note. She applied for an open position in the then-new Gifts of Art program at the U-M Hospital and got it. Nine years later, she became the director of the program, which has flourished under her leadership. On any given day, one can hear performances in the various hospitals, see art exhibitions in nine different galleries, and hear the soothing sounds of live music wafting from patients' rooms. This is the work of Elaine and her staff.

Exhibits, Music, Art cart, a meditation garden, and more....

Elaine and the Gifts of Art staff manage and install 54 exhibits a year in UMHS art galleries, hold weekly public concerts, operate an Art Cart program that serves as a lending library of art prints for patient rooms, and maintain the Friends Meditation Garden (located on the northeast side of the main hospital courtyard). They also bring live music into the hospital courtyard and lobbies, and offer bedside music, art-making and storytelling opportunities for patients and their families. Staff can participate in the annual Employee Art Exhibition and the Life Sciences Orchestra and hospital-wide art projects. Elaine empathizes with the sense of isolation hospital patients and their families experience. "You're really kind of alone, a stranger in a strange land," she says. "Your whole world is suddenly stripped away."

Healing qualities in difficult times

She understands and appreciates the healing qualities art offers to patients and their families during some of their darkest hours. "Art has a very powerful effect," she says. "It gives clues to psycho-social supportto those times, people and places that made you feel safe, protected, and in control. "It gives people back their identity, their sense of self, and a foothold from which to say, 'I'm still here!'"

- Jan Schlain