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Bridging the arts and health

Murry DePillars in a grey suit and sunglasses standing in front of a brick wall outside Hampton University Museum

Muzi Branch (BFA ’80, MAE ’86) credits former VCUarts Dean Murry N. DePillars, Ph.D., with helping him graduate.

Branch initially enrolled as a Fashion Design major, but struggled to find his place in the program. He soon left school, but DePillars convinced him to come back and change his major to Art Education.

“He was always honest about making sure that you were doing your work,” Branch says. “There are a lot of things in college that can distract you from your academic career, and he made sure we stayed on point and got our work done. I could talk to him at any time. His door was always open.

“And, coming to VCU and seeing an African-American in that position was inspiring. It let us know that we had a place here at VCU and that we could succeed.”

DePillars’ influence continues to be a presence in Branch’s career. Today, Branch is the director of Arts in Healthcare for VCU Health—a program that traces its roots to DePillars’ tenure as dean.

Branch talks about the history of the program and how DePillars’ early vision has guided the decades-long partnership between the arts and health at VCU.

How did the Arts in Healthcare program begin at VCU?

The department was the brainchild of Dr. DePillars. He initiated the program, but it was called Cultural Programs at the time. The mission was to bring the arts into the healthcare setting.

It had a modest start. The first thing they did was they had an art cart, and they rolled paintings around to patient rooms and asked patients what they would like on their walls. In hospitals, you lose your autonomy. They tell you when to sleep, when to eat, when to do everything. This was an effort to give patients a sense of power and control over their environment.

That [art cart] program lasted a few years, but it stopped because patients don’t stay in hospitals long anymore. Instead, they started having exhibitions by local artists in the hospital. They set up three galleries; the first was in Main Hospital, then Stony Point, and then North Hospital.

All I can say is, Dr. DePillars saw the vision. We have one of the oldest hospital-based arts programs in the country. Now there are over 250 hospitals with in-house art programs, but we were among the first.

What was his vision?

I think Dr. DePillars envisioned the entire arts school being able to augment, supplement and integrate into the health system to work with patients and staff.

What we envision is bridging the academic campus with the medical campus and bringing students into the hospital so that they can have a real experience working with our patients, playing music in the lobby, and doing things that help us move patients from their malady to wellness.

What does the arts and health program look like today?

The program has grown. We have concerts in the lobby, and local musicians and sometimes VCU music students will come and play. We also have music therapy; we now have three music therapists. We don’t have an art therapist, but we do have an art specialist and an arts coordinator and they work with patients doing art activities, art lessons and teaching, or just delivering an art kit.

We serve five constituencies. We serve the patients with patient care. We design programs that are specifically geared toward our diverse population of caregivers. We also do the healing environment; we have about a $2.5 million art collection displayed in all of our buildings, from Tappahannock down to South Hill, here in downtown Richmond, and all of our clinics around town. Then we do education with the doctors and nurses about the arts in healthcare. And lastly, we do quantitative and qualitative research to document the efficacy of the programs.

How would you describe Dr. DePillars’ legacy?      

VCU has been integral in the Richmond development, but Dr. DePillars being at VCU certainly helped its direction, helped its inclusion, its diversity. I think that’s a big part of his legacy. He brought in even staff. He increased the number of African Americans who worked in the art department, who became professors, who were able to teach there. He brought Alex Bostic, and Lydia Thompson, and all the people who helped develop the art department and develop Richmond. His legacy, I’d say, is the inclusion and the success, the import of African-American art and artists. He helped Richmond become more cognizant of the potential that was in the Black community.