On a Monday morning in October, a health clinic on Whittier Boulevard in Boyle Heights is as busy as to be expected; a mix of families and individuals of all ages wait patiently to receive dental or medical care. Mothers are comforting fussy babies in strollers, a few toddlers run about the aisles, and other folks have cell phones in hand or chatting to pass the time. Conversations happen in English and in Spanish while educational programs run on the overhead television.
This scene is likely playing out at the 51 other clinics of AltaMed Health Services Corporation, which serves more than 300,000 Southern California residents from working-class communities, but what’s different about this picture is a less common sight at your usual doctor’s office or urgent clinic: the reception area is bedecked with pink furry boas and large, exquisite, handmade roses made of paper to promote Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In fact, it is at all of AltaMed’s facilities. This sight is by design, thanks to the directives of the corporate office. The message coming from the top is loud and clear: wearing a pink ribbon isn’t enough. Add to that the fact that through October, AltaMed clinics are giving gift bags to women who have their mammograms done there, and you start to get the feeling that being responsible about your health can actually be something to celebrate versus dread.
And once clients pass through the doors to reach the treatment rooms, a man named Julian Bermudez oversees what AltaMed wants them to experience next. His job is unique, important and, quite frankly, unusual. Most healthcare providers that serve this particular population — made up of primarily Latinos, as well as those of African and Asian descent, who are uninsured or underinsured — don’t have someone like him on staff: a curator.
He ensures that the uplifting mood of the clinic doesn’t end with the brightly painted walls or seasonal decorations by its staff. Bermudez, who has worked at many local galleries and museums and has his own acclaimed gallery in Cypress Park, works with AltaMed’s CEO of four decades, Cástulo de la Rocha, whom he meets with every day to discuss the artwork in the AltaMed Art Collection: what gets placed in each facility, what to acquire next, what museums or galleries are requesting loans.
“The purpose of AltaMed having an art collection is that we really feel that patients have to have an experience that goes well beyond just the physical care,” says Bermudez. “We really firmly believe that art and culture are so part and parcel of their daily lives that when they come into a clinical environment, we want them to feel like they’ve come into a home. They’re stepping into something familiar.” They do this by making the collection reflective of the communities they serve: in terms of the artists they select and the narratives of their works. Generic photos of coastlines and posters of flowers here just won’t do. For instance, in the hallways of the Boyle Heights clinic there are large canvases and limited-edition lithographs of cultural icons: from artist Frida Kahlo by Raul Caracosa and actor Anthony Quinn as “The Pope of Broadway” (one of L.A.’s famed murals) by Eloy Torrez to performer Jennifer Lopez by L.A. graffiti artist Man One. There is also a serigraph of Phil Spector’s Pyrenees Castle in Alhambra by Miyo Stevens-Gandara printed at the nearby Self Help Graphics, the mixed-media painting “Señora con frutos” (“Lady with fruits”) by Guillermo Azuela and vibrant portraits of Latinos by Yolanda Gonzalez, a prominent local painter who also serves as an art therapist at AltaMed and has a mural in progress on the exterior of the clinic.
De la Rocha and Bermudez have a fantastic partnership that has shaped the image of AltaMed, and de la Rocha enjoys recounting how the two were introduced more than a decade ago: “The relationship came about as a result of my interest in art. I worked with a couple of friends of mine, painter Roberto Gil de Montes and his partner, Eddie Dominguez, also an artist and a collector, and told them, ‘Hey, I have all this art, but I have to organize this stuff.’” This “stuff” consisted of many paintings and serigraphs by Chicano and Mexican artists. “I wasn’t at that point where people would refer to me as a collector. I had a hobby. I just had art in my home and in different places.” With his collection starting to grow and less wall space at home to exhibit it, de la Rocha realized he had a place to display the art: “I had clinics. And they didn’t have art before. It was almost perfect.”
His friends introduced him to Terezita Romo, a prominent curator in San Francisco who specializes in Chicano art, and she was hired as a consultant along with Patrick Ela, an art appraiser, to join Bermudez to expand the collection beyond the scope of Latino and Chicano artists. Bermudez was actually recommended to de la Rocha in 2008 by Sian Leong, an employee in AltaMed’s development department, whom Bermudez had worked with at the Pacific Asia Museum. After Romo and Ela left the project, Bermudez remained to advise de la Rocha on the AltaMed Art Collection, which is currently around 1,000 pieces — paintings, sculpture, photography, lithographs and serigraphs, including ones purchased from the Cheech Marin Collection.
For decades, major U.S. health organizations have been developing art collections to adorn its corridors that could rival some major museums, including Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood with works from such artists as Lichtenstein, Warhol, Miró and even Picasso. Now AltaMed is joining their ranks with established and emerging artists like Enrique Castrejon, Kenturah Davis, Vladimir Cora, Esteban Leyva, Claudia Peña, Carlos Almaraz, Ana Serrano, and, appropriately Gil de Montes, all of whose work are currently on display at AltaMed’s headquarters in the City of Commerce. And the sight of these works — whether in the ground-floor gallery, where exhibits change quarterly, or hanging in the spacious hallways of the three-story building — is, just as the works displayed in their clinics, affecting.
Cultural institutions such as the Getty, LACMA, Bowers Museum are now taking notice — requesting pieces for exhibits. In the past year, the AltaMed Art Collection has launched two major exhibits curated by Bermudez: “Before the 45th: Action/Reaction in Chicano and Latino Art,” hosted by the Mexican Cultural Institute last fall/winter in Washington, D.C., highlighting what SoCal-based Latino and Chicano artists have been commenting on in their works for decades: racial, social and economic inequality. AltaMed’s collection has even gone beyond the country borders. The second exhibit, “Bridges in a Time of Walls: Mexican/Chicano Art from Los Angeles to Mexico,” features four-plus decades of work also by SoCal-based Chicano and Latino artists and is currently on view at Museo de Arte Carillo Gil in Mexico City through November 25.
Click through below to get a glimpse of AltaMed's art collection and exhibitions
For AltaMed, a healthcare corporation, to present an exhibit at the international level, especially in his homeland is significant: “What distinguishes us from other people in this space is that we’re good at assessing opportunities and being able to leverage those opportunities,” says de la Rocha. And he wants to continue this momentum for the coming years both in terms of their exhibits internationally and at their clinics when people are at their most vulnerable.
“I realized that [our artwork] really resonated with our patients at our senior centers,” de la Rocha shares. “If you’re a senior, you’re there because you have multiple conditions — chronic conditions. You have dependencies, activities of daily living — you need to walk, go to the bathroom — you need someone to help you with. Those are huge challenges. But if you walk in and you see a beautiful painting of a landscape or a plaza that reminds you of your hometown in Mexico or in Latin America, it’s a universal thing. That connection makes you feel comfortable [and provides] a sense of wellness and harmony with your own environment.”
Why is this so important to de la Rocha? “My roots are Mexican,” he says. “That’s why I have this kind of furniture,” referring to antique-looking, hand-painted and -carved wood chairs in one of the meetings rooms, “this kind of art on my walls,” gesturing to a print on the wall by Mexican painter Raúl Anguiano. Even the coffee mugs at the corporate office have artwork on it by Anguiano. Here, a predictable logo doesn’t suffice — AltaMed is the experience it creates for all who visit — it is heritage, it is comfort, it is art.
Top Image: Eloy Torrez's "Migration" from the AltaMed Health Services Corporation collection | Courtesy of AltaMed