In Roswell Park's New Art Gallery, 'Instant Stress Relief'

Thursday, January 31, 2019 - 8:00am

Chris Eberle was still in the thick of her breast cancer treatments — chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy — and it had been a long day. “There are so many people, all rushing around,” she says. “You’re getting shot up with all these drugs, and it’s constant commotion and constant stress. It blows your nervous system out of whack.”

Then she stepped into Roswell Park’s brand-new art gallery. As she remembers that moment, her shoulders relax and she lets out a long sigh of relief. “It was peace. It was quiet. It was instant stress relief, sitting on a bench and staring at a work of art.” A longtime volunteer with the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation Art Committee, Eberle had been invited to tour the gallery with other committee members, to learn about the artwork and the gallery’s goal: to give patients a focus beyond their cancer diagnosis.

Toward the end of the program, in walked Khurshid Guru, MD, Chair of the Department of Urology and Director of Robotic Surgery at Roswell Park. Creating the gallery was his idea.

Eberle walked over to him. “Oh, thank you — thank you!” she said. “This is absolutely brilliant.”

Connecting the Eyes and the Brain

Anyone who knows Khurshid Guru will not be surprised to learn that he was the guy behind the art gallery project. He’s constantly on the lookout for ways to do things better. He co-invented a simulator that enables surgeons to refine their skills in robotic surgery before operating on a patient. Inspired by street performers using marionettes, he developed the “marionette stitch” to give surgeons better access to the organs they need to reach. Five years ago, he introduced a summer program that helps prepare high school students to enter the healthcare professions.

Because of his work in robotic surgery, Guru understands the strong connection between the eyes and brain. He wondered if the same connection could impact the healing process. “I thought, We have such beautiful art,” he recalls. “Maybe we should build a gallery.”

Never one to let grass grow under his feet, he quickly got in touch with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and “they jumped on board,” offering the professional expertise of Joe Lin-Hill, PhD, Deputy Director, and Russell Davidson, Innovation Lab & Special Projects Manager.

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Funding and Space: An Enormous Challenge

Building the gallery presented an enormous challenge. It meant raising money “to make the whole thing come together,” says Cynthia Schwartz, Director of the Alliance Foundation Ambassador Program. “I worked with Dr. Guru and the Albright-Knox in pulling together the funding plan. It was made possible by generous donations of more than $100,000 from a number of individuals who recognized the value of art to our patients’ well being, both physically and psychologically.

“We also needed to find a location we could renovate affordably to achieve what we needed — a space that felt like a gallery. The team from the Facilities Department did a remarkable job. You walk into that space and it’s 100% different from anything else you experience at Roswell, and we were able to do it well within our budget.” Schwartz has high praise for Jim Constantin, Director of Planning, and Jason Sobieraj, Assistant Director, who created the gallery in an area that once housed the hospital’s Rehabilitation Therapy Department.

When the space was ready, it was time to select the artwork. Curated by the Albright-Knox, the first exhibit features photography, painting, sculpture, mixed-media pieces and even a computer animation of brightly colored butterflies flitting about.

“None of the pieces in the gallery came from the Albright-Knox,” Guru clarifies. “They’re on loan from the artists, owners and galleries. A lot of the artists are local.”

Cynthia Schwartz says Roswell Park’s President and CEO, Candace Johnson, PhD, is “so enthusiastic about this project that she has committed the space for a permanent gallery.”

“Power to Settle People’s Spirit”

RoseAnn Berardi, Chair of the Alliance Foundation Art Committee, says the finished gallery far exceeded her expectations. When she first saw it, “I was in awe. My heart stopped.

“When I walk into the gallery and connect with a work of art, without the distractions and the noise, it becomes a spiritual experience for me. This space has an incredible power to settle people’s spirit.”

Patients may visit the Art Heals gallery if they do not need constant monitoring, can walk to the gallery or ride in a wheelchair, and have the permission of their Roswell Park clinical team. Tours are available by appointment only every Monday and Thursday at 2 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. The tours are 30 minutes each, and capacity is limited. To register for a tour, call 716-845-2867 or 716-845-8227.

Stay tuned to Cancer Talk to find out how the Art Heals gallery is supporting a groundbreaking clinical trial evaluating the physical and emotional effects of art on surgical patients.