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Art in Public Spaces: A mirror on the community

A new exhibit aims to show the school as it is, not as it was.

In mid-March, the hallway that leads down the L-wing of the Sterling Hall of Medicine through the Rotunda to the historic Beaumont Room saw the opening of an exhibit of portraits. The bulletin boards and historic paintings usually on those walls gave way to about 30 archival-quality photographs of women faculty members, on display as part of an exhibit sponsored by the recently formed Committee on Art in Public Spaces (CAPS) at Yale School of Medicine (YSM). Over the course of the next year, images from the exhibit will rotate in order to include more women faculty, including those at different points in their academic career. Among the portraits hang empty frames that ask questions, including: “Who is missing? How do we celebrate all women at YSM?” and “If you could offer advice to your younger self, what would you say? What would you say to inspire the next generation of women in any profession?”

For most of its 200-plus years, the medical school has mirrored the patriarchal society in which it existed. The school’s first women, Louise Farnam, Helen May Scoville, and Lillian Nye, matriculated just over 100 years ago. The first Black woman, Beatrix Ann Hamburg, was admitted in the late 1940s. The first Black man, Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed, graduated from the medical school in 1857, but over the next 100 years few followed him. Since the mid-1990s, women have made up half of each medical school class. Women and minorities have also increased their presence as faculty members. Faculty, students, and staff—and such groups as the Committee on Diversity, Inclusivity, and Social Justice; Minority Organization for Retention and Expansion, and Status of Women in Medicine; have called for public-facing art that reflects those changes.

As an example of the lack of diversity, they point to the only art collection on permanent display in the Sterling Hall of Medicine—paintings of past deans, all of them white men. “Those portraits are definitely central to the conversation,” said Darin Latimore, MD, deputy dean and chief diversity officer. “Not just faculty, but students, staff, and our patients, are clear on what our walls should represent and who they should represent.”

“Everyone is thinking about these issues,” said Anna Reisman, MD, associate professor of medicine and director of the Program for the Humanities in Medicine. Reconsideration of historic images—such as a statue of Robert E. Lee or a portrait of John Calhoun—has roiled communities around the country, including Yale.

Latimore and Reisman are co-chairs of CAPS, which was formed last year. The interest was such that more than 100 people responded to the committee’s call for volunteers last year. Two subcommittees were formed—one will identify spaces and develop themes for rotating exhibits, and the other will articulate the values the permanent or long-term art should embody.

The core executive team also includes Melissa Grafe, PhD, the John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History; Jill Max, MS, senior communications officer at YSM; and Jennifer Reynolds-Kaye, PhD, curator of education and academic outreach at the Yale Center for British Art. “Each of us brings some kind of unique expertise that has driven this project forward,” Latimore said.

The committee is still considering ideas for future exhibits, as well as alternate spaces. “I’m pushing for CaféMed,” said Reisman, “and there are many, many hallways here.”

As to their goals for this inaugural display, Latimore said, “I am hoping that it really will cause a conversation about Yale’s past, present, and future.”

“What is especially great about this hallway is that it leads to the Beaumont Room, which is a gathering place for so many groups, including medical school and residency applicants—people who are not yet part of this institution but may be considering becoming part of it,” said Reisman. “The exhibits will say that this is a place where people are open to change.”