There was the widower who was mourning his wife, who had died of cancer. It seems that the couple had met decades earlier while making loon calls. During the wife's long hospitalization, both made frequent visits to an elaborately beaded loon displayed in the hospital's permanent collection that had been created by a Chicago artist.
"After she died, the husband wanted to buy the loon," Sims said, "I told him I couldn't sell it, but I put him in touch with the artist. She was touched by his story, and she agreed to make another loon for him."
Corporations, universities, municipalities and other public institutions also collect and exhibit art. But a hospital setting possesses unique advantages.
Unlike a brokerage or bank, access to hospitals isn't restricted. In addition, hospitals are mostly shielded from the political pressures besetting any taxpayer-supported institution.
And large medical centers are among the few entities that can afford to collect on a grand scale, so that, for example, when the 174-bed Martha Jefferson Hospital opened last August in Charlottesville, Va., it had an instant collection of more than 700 works of art.
According to the Society for the Arts in Health Care, 56 percent of all hospitals, hospices and nursing centers rely on their operating budgets to buy paintings and sculptures. But the most expensive individual works, the Chihulys and the Grant Woods, tend to be donated by a philanthropist such as Bloomberg or by grateful former patients.
Those same philanthropists also form the bedrock of many museum collections. But the people who run the nation's arts institutions say they aren't worried that medical centers will put them out of business.
"Museums have a dual purpose," says Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
"There's the presentation piece. But museums also are responsible for preserving works of art. We hold our collections in trust for the public. That piece involves an enormous amount of resources and expertise, and it's hard for me to imagine hospitals taking it on."
Perhaps that's one reason why hospital collections feature mostly modern art. Contemporary works are less vulnerable to the ravages of time, and are more able to withstand the bustle and jostle of daily life.
For instance, Dale Chihuly's fantastic glass tubes appear as delicate as any flowers. And they are. But they're also composed of many small pieces. If one breaks, the artist provides replacement parts.
And, as Bolger hints, while the missions of hospitals and museums overlap, they are far from identical.
"Museums and hospitals usually aren't trying to acquire the same kinds of pieces," says Drapkin, the Iowa curator.
"Hospitals don't want bland motel art, but we do want art that's going to help people feel better. We're not going to go for something that's too edgy."
It's difficult to imagine, for instance, any hospital displaying such deliberately unsettling works as Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" or an Elizabeth Catlett linocut of a lynching. And, as any art historian will attest, it's the in-your-face artwork of today that frequently ages into tomorrow's masterpieces.
Indeed, museums tend to view hospitals not as adversaries, but as allies who can help the public appreciate the visual arts.
Some medical centers are located in smaller communities with few other art museums.
For example, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., is a 90-minute drive from the state's largest museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Mayo began aggressively collecting art in 1954, according to Sally Enders, the clinic's art program coordinator.
But artwork doesn't have to be made by someone famous for it to work its magic. Hopkins, for instance, intentionally decided against using its seven-figure acquisition budget to stock up on big-name artists.
"Our collecting strategy wasn't name-driven," curator Rosen says.
"We were determined to do something unique that reflected the innovative, laboratory-like DNA of Hopkins. We wanted to give people who spend a lot of time in a hospital things to think about and places to go in their imagination."
Bolger thinks that they succeeded.
"They engaged wonderful artists and did something perfect for that setting," she says.
"When I walked around that lobby, I saw fantastic pieces that were so environmental: yellow puffer fish, mother and baby animals. The art isn't an afterthought. It's an integral part of the whole experience."
Securing hospital art
Envisage this: you're carrying a cup of coffee down a hospital corridor and slip on a recently mopped floor. The scalding brown liquid splashes skyward, striking the surface of a nearby print hanging on the wall. Oops — there goes the Lichtenstein.
"Hospitals are tough places for art," says Elaine Sims, who directs the Gifts of Art program for the University of Michigan Health Systems.
"People are sick, and they fall over. We have big, heavy pieces of equipment that have to be moved. Security is always a concern."