Artists are often a very diverse group of people stemming from varied backgrounds and walks of life. It has also been noted that a number of artists historically have suffered from mental illness. Being the hub of the arts that it is, New York City has several outreach programs that aid artists in their creative endeavors and “Healing Arts Initiative” (HAI) is dedicated to supporting artists who have mental disabilities.
In the words of David Sweeny, Executive Director of Healing Arts Initiative; “We all know that access to art is as vital as fresh air and clean water. It’s the force that stirs our hearts, the spark that inspires creativity and the gift that binds community. HAI’s work is fueled by a passionate conviction that everyone needs a healthy diet of art – chicken soup for the soul.”
Unfortunately, many individuals and families are art starved. Despite New York City’s vast cultural reservoir, millions of residents are deprived access to art because of age, illness, disability and/or poverty. It is HAI’s mission to eliminate barriers to art for New Yorkers excluded from the cultural mainstream. Art is transformative and HAI is determined to continue to make arts and culture a shared resource. HAI accomplishes this mission by taking art out of lofty enclaves and bringing it into schools, hospitals, prisons, and other health and social service settings as well as by taking marginalized individuals into the community and cultural venues.
HAI started nearly 50 years ago (originally under the name “Hospital Audiences Inc.”) and remains committed to building a legacy by continuing the promise of bringing art into the lives of disadvantaged New Yorkers. From its headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, HAI constantly seeks ways to make art accessible to everyone—especially those with mental disabilities who might garner beneficial therapeutic value from working with the arts.
HAI has an interesting history. In the 1960s Michael Jon Spencer, an accomplished pianist and performer who had dropped out of Harvard Law School, entered Queens College’s graduate music program. Pursuing a degree in music recital, his graduate thesis required him to perform for a unique and defined audience. Thus, Michael scheduled his recital at the Manhattan State Psychiatric Center where he was certain to have a captivated, non-traditional audience. The responsive to his performance was so successful and positive that Michael and his piano were set up on the hospital elevator and successive concerts were presented floor by floor to isolated, institutionalized, mental health patients and hospital staff. Demand for more performances of this sort grew quickly and Michael was soon giving regular recitals across the city, reaching nearly 1,000 patients each week. From these initial performances, Michael and medical facility staff clearly observed the power of live music and the seeds of HAI were sown. Soon thereafter, Michael contacted over 300 foundations for the funding to start an organization devoted to bringing live performances to institutionalized individuals. One anonymous donor, later found to be none other than the late Alice Tully, responded to the request and this initial funding helped to launch HAI. In 1969, Hospital Audiences Inc. was born.
“Twenty years before art and cultural inclusion was advanced by the ADA, opening doors and laying ramps for better access, HAI had already defined the meaning of arts inclusion through offering high quality arts experiences and cultural programs to the most severely marginalized individuals – those who are bed bound, institutionally warehoused and denigrated by society,” states David Sweeny. “We are proud of HAI’s history in pioneering these initiatives since 1968 and thrilled to have many generous and enthusiastic supporters who continue to be part of HAI and its future. For all of the feisty and creative souls who built this wonderful agency, for the countless donors and volunteers who kept HAI vital and relevant over these many years, and for all of the new recruits who have joined HAI as staff, Board Members, volunteers, donors and friends, we remain grateful.”
HAI does not only serve the mentally ill. The program also helps seniors, the visually impaired, brain damaged individuals, schools, health facilities, and private corporations. At the Gallery at HAI, artists can showcase their work and run several events every year such as “The Carpetbagger Liquidation Sale.” In this show, artists are selling one-of-a kind tote bags at the bargain basement price of $40 each, combining art with practicality and sheer exuberance. The gallery reception and sale will be May 7, 5-7pm. The exhibition will continue throughout the summer.
To learn more about Healing Arts Initiative: