Hospitals may not be the first places that come to mind when you think of where to see works of famous contemporary artists, but inside NYC Health + Hospitals/Woodhull, there are not one but two Keith Haring murals. The murals are part of the largest public art collection in New York City, a collection of over 3,000 works curated by NYC Health + Hospitals. As an advocate who believed art should be accessible to everyone, Haring gifted the murals in 1986. In Untapped New York’s upcoming talk with Linh Dang, Senior Director of NYC Health + Hospitals Arts in Medicine Program, she will discuss how Haring’s contribution to the New York City healthcare system is part of a tradition that dates back to the 1930s and is being carried on today by The Community Mural Project.

Keith Haring signature

In a proposal for the Woodhull mural, Haring explains his inspiration for the piece. When visiting the hospital, he noticed a border running around the lobby, “an intricate part of the architecture” that he wanted to “embellish…with a frieze of characters.” The characters are “very simple human and animal figures, dancing, playing, break dancing, etc.,” outlined in thick black paint with bright splashes of primary colors. Since the 700-foot long mural is the first thing that patients see upon entering the hospital, Haring wanted the design to be “positive, uplifting, unaggressive, imaginative and comforting.”

Woodhull Hospital Keith Haring mural

Haring’s parade of playful figures continues down two corridors that branch off of the main lobby. The hallway mural figures are just black and white but have more details than the lobby mural. While the lobby figures are abstract shapes, the hallway figures have details like faces and clothing. To complete the murals, Haring spent an entire week inside the Bed-Stuy hospital. During his downtime, he socialized with hospital staff, patients, visitors, and fans. He happily signed autographs and did small drawings for anyone who asked.

Keith Haring mural inside Woodhull hospitalPhotograph by Rick Luftglass

According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Haring created more than fifty murals for hospitals, daycare centers, charity venues, and orphanages during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. The Keith Haring mural inside NYC Health + Hospitals/Woodhull is estimated to be worth millions of dollars today. In 2018, a $20,000 restoration project was carried out by art conservators Helen Im and Suyeon Kim. The restoration included making repairs to water damaged areas of the painting and touching up the paint on the Keith Haring mural.

Murals first appeared in New York City hospitals in the 1930s when the depression-era Works Progress Administration commissioned hundreds of them for New York City’s public hospital system. As the century progressed, hospitals and organizations continued to commission murals, sometimes from famous artists such as Kenny Scharf. Today, the mural tradition continues with The Community Mural Project run by NYC Health + Hospitals Arts in Medicine program and funded by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.

Keith Haring murals in corner of Woodhull Hospital

The Community Mural Project facilitates the creation of collaborative works of art that bring together healthcare staff, patients, artists, and local residents. Each group plays an important role in every step of the creation process, from designing the mural to actually painting it! Started in 2019, the project has already added sixteen new murals to hospitals all over New York City, with plans to add more. The goal of the program is to “re-imagine hospitals and promote greater neighborhood wellness.” The Community Mutal Project was more vital than ever in 2020, when the murals helped to combat caregiver fatigue and bolstered the spirits of frontline workers during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In NYC Health + Hospitals/Harlem, you can see more of KetihHaring’s work. RxArt, in partnership with the Keith Haring Foundation, produced a wall decal for the hospital’s waiting room in 2019 with a design created by Haring. In 2020, artist Imani Shanklin Roberts contributed a new mural to NYC Health + Hospitals/Woodhull’s exterior, joining the Keith Haring mural created over thirty years ago. On the Illumination Fund website, you can see all of the locations where community murals have been added over the past two years. The call for artists to create murals in 2021, along with a list of new mural locations, have just been released! You can learn more and fill out an application here!

Image Courtesy of NYC Health + Hospitals

Discover more amazing works of art hidden in plain sight throughout the NYC Health + Hospitals system in our upcoming talk with Linh Dang, Senior Director of H+H’s Arts in Medicine, and Rick Luftglass, Executive Director of the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. Linh and Rick will talk about the evolution of The Community Mural Project, give behind-the-scenes stories on some of the program’s most interesting pieces, discuss plans for 2021, and let you know how you can get involved!

This upcoming virtual talk is organized for Untapped New York Insiders. Not an Insider yet? Become a member today and get two months free with code JOINUS, then membership is just $10/month. A video of the talk will also be made available to all our Insiders afterward in the Video Archive section of our website. Already an Insider, register here

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Next, check out 8 Places to See Keith Haring’s Artwork in NYC and See Inside Keith Haring’s Last Apartment in NYC. Also discover the many secrets of NYC.