The Art of Giving

Text by Dorota Kozinska

Most great endeavours have a human story behind them, and the genesis of the Art for Healing Foundation is no exception.

Its main players are two Montrealers, Earl Pinchuk and Gary Blair, who combining business acumen with lots of heart, made a dream come true.

In 2001, Earl and Gary spent a lot of time with an ill friend at the Royal Victoria Hospital, and during their frequent visits, they could not help but notice the blandness of the surroundings. It struck them, how this lack of visual stimulus added to the overall sadness of the hospital environment, affecting all, patients, staff and visitors alike and especially so their dying friend, who was an artist himself.

Around the same time, Earl got involved in organizing an art exhibition with Montreal writer and art critic, Dorota Kozinska. Together, they visited artists’ studios and art galleries, and Earl began noticing the vast amount of art that is never exhibited, never given the chance to brighten someones life. Following the collaborative show, Earl remained in the art milieu, offering his services to Galerie D’Avignon, where the exhibition took place.

While working there, he was taken by one show in particular, that of a series of colourful landscapes by Montreal artist Catherine Bates. Despite generous attendance, the post-September 11 economic climate on the world market did not contribute to the sales, and most of the works returned to the artist’s studio. Watching the van being loaded with these wonderful canvases, Earl felt as though he was participating in a burial. “Unwanted and unappreciated”, were the words that came to his mind.

A discussion on the unwanted and unappreciated works continued that evening with Gary and, this was, perhaps, the precise moment in time when the idea of the foundation was born. What followed were long discussions between Earl and Gary during which the logistics of finding a way of bringing art to the public began to take shape. With the memory of their recent visits to the Royal Victoria to visit their dying friend still fresh in their minds, they knew that hospitals were the public areas they wanted to concentrate on. Images of Bates’s splendid landscapes gracing the lobby of the Vic instantly came to mind, followed by endless other possibilities of combining aiding artists and patients alike.

As with any venture of this magnitude, public support was greatly needed, and soon the occasion presented itself where such an appeal could be made. It was Earl’s 40th birthday party, organized by both Earl and Gary and done so with all the grandeur such an event warranted. The close to 100 invited guests were introduced to the idea of a foundation aimed at bringing the visual arts to places of healing and instead of presents, donations to the foundation were encouraged. The call was answered that evening, with $8,000 total being raised.

Before instantly channelling the proceeds into purchases, the two astutely decided to first test the idea closer to home. Returning to his family’s business after a year of learning the ropes of the temperamental art market, Earl and Gary undertook to liven up Earl’s surroundings by placing numerous art reproductions around the building. From one day to the next, reproductions of paintings by Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol and Lawren Harris’ appeared on the walls to the heartfelt applause of the staff. To put it plainly, the project was a hit.

Thus encouraged, Earl and Gary agreed to purchase a large number of artistic reproductions, which could be distributed around an entire hospital, rather than spending vast amounts on one or two original canvases. Opting for maximum effect on the maximum number of persons, they then began approaching different institutions to gage their interest.

With the most vulnerable in mind, the Montreal Children’s Hospital topped their list, and it did not take a lot of convincing to get the administration involved in the initiative. Since January 2003 original works of art, prints and reproductions are gracing many areas of the hospital. The Montreal Children’s Hospital’s Architectural Services Department, responsible for renovating and refurbishing the hospital, is now able to additionally incorporate artwork provided by the foundation into the overall design of newly renovated areas. Because the secondary mission of the foundation is to incorporate art education, in some cases, groupings of works by one artist or a “gallery” has been installed complete with a brief biographical plaque on the artist being exhibited.

Early into their first project at the Children’s Hospital Earl and Gary discovered that six children, who because of the nature of their illness and family circumstances, were obliged to live in the hospital as full-time residents, each assigned their own private room. These children were given the opportunity to personally select a piece of art, from among several hundred choices, in order to decorate their “home”. It was not surprising that their choices, with one exception, were of glorious, outdoor scenes, something so lacking in their day to day reality. A daily image that would perhaps give them hope and inspiration for a future time in their lives.

Since 2002, the Foundation has installed 9000 works of art in 71 institutions in Quebec, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba and British Columbia.

There is little doubt of the beneficial effects of art, and ventures like the Art for Healing Foundation are a natural outgrowth of a growing movement towards incorporating art into everyday life. And in the difficult circumstances surrounding illness and suffering, its healing effects can be appreciated even that much further. It does not take much to find a way to touch someone, to make them smile and to ease their pain. All it takes is the art of giving.