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Arts organizations stumble into the healthcare debate

August 13, 2009 |  3:00 pm

Eleanor Antin RN artist Ronald Feldman Arts NY

Several years ago I stopped into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood to visit a friend who had unexpectedly landed there for an emergency procedure. Cedars had a well-known program of installing actual art in patients' rooms, rather than bland designer graphics or cheap reproductions. My friend was a well-respected museum curator and critic, so I was especially puzzled to encounter an ordinary scarf unceremoniously taped to the wall opposite her bed.

"What's that?" I asked.

"My scarf," she moaned. "Underneath is the ugliest watercolor I've ever seen. It's making me sick."

Today, a coalition of 21 national arts organizations entered the healthcare reform debate with three really good prescriptions -- and one really bad one. In additional to its helpful ideas, the coalition also wants "a healthcare reform bill that will support arts in healthcare programs, which have shown to be effective methods of prevention and patient care."

Uh, not always.

Clinical art therapy might be a perfectly legitimate, even beneficial medical specialty. But whatever the case, when I want advice about a medical procedure, I'd rather ask my doctor than a national coalition of arts organizations.

Under the umbrella of Americans for the Arts, the Washington, D.C.-based arts lobbying group, the coalition smartly asked Congress to pass a reform bill that acknowledges the unique difficulties artists confront in obtaining healthcare.

"Like others who have fallen through the cracks of the current system," the press release correctly says, "many in the cultural workforce work independently or operate in nontraditional employment relationships, leaving them locked out of group healthcare coverage options."

They call on Congress to pass a bill that will:

1) create a public health insurance option for individual artists, especially the uninsured, and create better choices for affordable access to universal health coverage without being denied because of pre-existing conditions.
2) help financially-strapped nonprofit arts organizations reduce the skyrocketing health insurance costs to cover their employees without cuts to existing benefits and staff while the economy recovers. These new cost-savings could also enable nonprofit arts organizations to produce and present more programs to serve their communities.
3) enable smaller nonprofit and unincorporated arts groups to afford to cover part- and full-time employees for the first time.

These proposals ably demonstrate a pressing need within a large sector of the public. (Americans for the Arts has estimated that nearly 6 million Americans are employed in the nonprofit sector.) They also demonstrate a pressing need within a creative class that is regularly punished for nonconformity. And they show the fiscal multiplier effect -- what we lose elsewhere because of sky-high medical expenses -- in our current system, which costs twice as much as the average for industrialized nations while ranking Americans at No. 42 in life expectancy

That's a worthwhile effort, especially in the face of the bald-faced lies being uttered -- or, more often, yelled -- in the current healthcare discussion. But inserting art into the dialogue? That's giving me a headache.

Partly it's a symptom of the therapeutic fallacy that plagues our sentimentalized culture. I wonder whether there's a pill to remedy the inanity that art is supposed to be good for you?

And partly it's old-fashioned special pleading. Just about the last thing we need right now is yet another distraction from a debate that should be about the delivery of healthcare to every American.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: "Eleanor Antin, R.N.," 1976

Credit: The artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

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