My first lesson on the value of artwork in a healthcare setting occurred about nine years ago when I was walking the hallways of a maternity ward. It was the middle of the night, I was having regular contractions, but I wasn’t far enough along to be admitted to the hospital. So the nurse gave me the option to walk the hallways for a few hours or go home.

So off I went, walking and walking and walking, and that’s where my husband and I came across a pastel-colored image of a man with shoulder-length wavy blond hair and faded blue jeans holding hands with a child.

The framed print was hanging at the end of a corridor and I can’t remember why it popped in our heads but something about that man reminded us of Matthew McConaughey. So every time we passed that image (which was often in the horseshoe-shaped corridor), my husband would summon his best, most charming Texas drawl and say something funny.

Our little inside joke kept us moving and put a smile on our faces long enough to finally get admitted.

When I look at healthcare environments today, I realize how far art programs—and the attention paid to them—have evolved. Rather than hanging up random or dated images and photographs, there’s a better understanding that artwork is an important part of the aesthetics, just as much as a pleasing color palette and comfortable furniture.

It’s becoming less of an afterthought and part of early design discussions. The pieces are meaningful and reflective of the community.

Some recent projects offer ideas on how to put artwork to use within various healthcare environments:

1. Integrate pieces into the architecture

Kaiser Permanente hired art consulting firm Studio Art Direct (Portland, Ore.) early on in the planning and design process of its new Westside Medical Center (Hillsboro, Ore.). This offered time to commission original works of art from regional artists, as well as work with AECOM and the construction team on specifying lighting and extra structural supports in key pieces before the walls and ceilings were finished.

One such piece is a 1,200-pound glass gingko leaf sculpture hanging in the rotunda skylight. “There was a lot of engineering that had to be done with the skylight,” says Liza Kapisak, associate, interior project designer, AECOM (Minneapolis). “We saved time and money by doing it early on in the process.”

2. Use artwork to connect to the community

When designing the Ty Cobb Regional Medical Center (Lavonia, Ga.), the design team wanted to make a big statement and pay homage to the hospital’s namesake, but still be appropriate in a healthcare setting. (Toward the end of his life, Cobb made a $100,000 donation on his parents’ behalf to build the original 24-bed Cobb Memorial Hospital in Royston, Ga.)

The solution was a 30-foot-long-by-16-foot-wide digital wall graphic that hangs in the facility’s dining room. The sepia-tone piece incorporates images of Cobb himself, supplied by the Ty Cobb Museum, along with his autograph and quotes that carry a healthcare-related theme: “I regret to this day that I never went to college. I feel I should have been a doctor.”

3. Don't let budgets keep you from being creative

With a limited budget for the artwork at The Everett Clinic's Smokey Point Medical Center in Smokey Point, Wash., the design team spent their money wisely, choosing on a few contemporary pieces for the main corridor and key places, such as registration. These make an impact, while supporting the owner’s branding efforts as more modern and progressive, while the goal is to eventually go back and add prints to other areas in the facility.

As healthcare environments continue to evolve, it’s good to know that designers and owners can incorporate artwork in ways that make a statement, fill community needs, and stay on budget, all without compromising on their overall design objectives.