Kristen Hughes and Arts in Healing

Interview by Scott Dowd

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Western medicine was founded on the Greek ideal of “a healthy mind in  a healthy body.” This is the underlying principle of what is currently thought of as holistic medicine, which is simply the recognition of the inseparability of spiritual and psychological considerations from the treatment of physical distress. It has been nearly a decade since The Kentucky Center for the Arts began its research into the feasibility of creating a program to promote healing through the arts. The outcome was Arts in Healing, which currently partners with fifteen hospitals and other facilities in our community to provide musicians, actors, writers and visual artists who work to restore the spirit and creativity of patients in an effort to promote healing and maintain wellbeing. The idea of the program is to offer the healing power of creativity as a self-contained benefit to these partners. All of the work of finding, funding and coordinating the efforts of the artists falls to the program’s director, Kristen Hughes. A musician herself, Hughes was born in Yosemite National Park into a family of artists. She credits her upbringing with nurturing her spirituality and guiding her to a place in her life that allows her to integrate her passions.

Scott Dowd:  Were you involved in the Arts in Healing program from the beginning?

Kristen Hughes:  I was actually working in The Kentucky Center’s IT department during the initial research phase back in 2007–2008. Then in 2009 we put together a pilot program.

SD:  What did that look like?

KH:  We pulled together local artists and sent them out into some of our healthcare facilities partners. Then we all came back together to talk about what worked, what didn’t work and what was actually needed. I took a sabbatical, and while I was gone, they got the program off the ground. I came back and have been full-time since 2011. The program has just exploded since then. While I was gone, there were three full-time staff people who took on aspects of Arts in Healing in addition to their other work. It became clear if this idea was going to gain traction, it would need a dedicated staff.

SD:  Where did the idea for this program originate?

KH:  Kentucky Center Vice President of Programming Dan Forte first heard about this nascent movement at an Association for Performing Arts Presenters conference. He brought it to the attention of Debbie Shannon, who at that time worked in our education department, and Debbie Pennell, vice president of customer services and programming director. They loved the idea and went down to Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville. They started their Arts In Medicine program in 1990 and it has become a national model for changing the hospital experience and enhancing the healing process through art. The Debbies were able to find the funding needed to bring experts from Florida to Louisville to explore the realities of starting a similar program here.

SD:  Louisville would seem a natural location for this kind of collaboration. We have a strong, diverse arts program coupled with an established and still growing healthcare community.

KH:  Yes, the analysis showed that it made great sense for us to begin a program here.

SD:  Four years in, how many hospitals are involved locally?

KH:  Currently, we have about fifteen healthcare partners. We do all of the administrative work and we add to both the arts community and the healthcare community in a way that is very unique.

SD:  What are some of the program goals?

KH:  It’s hard to separate my personal goals from the program goals. Whether it is physical healing or mental health healing, there is an emotional and spiritual component that has to be addressed. For a long time, the medical model focused primarily on the physical. Even in dealing with mental health, the focus was on the physical—mental defect being regarded as aberrant manifestations of thought or behavior due to physical defect or chemical imbalance. I want to bring in the ideas that I grew up with as a musician—a connection to something outside ourselves and to something larger than ourselves. I want to help layer emotional expression on the healing process and make that happen in as many places as possible, for as many people as possible.

SD:  How do you go about accomplishing that goal?

KH:  We have practitioners of all the art forms. Music might consist of drumming workshops for patients, or mountain dulcimer lessons. Musicians might play in a lobby or in a waiting area. We have visual arts, drama, dance/movement and creative writing. I try to match what the healthcare partner wants with an artist. The artist then goes in and does their own programming.

SD:  This must be a new experience for some of these artists. What kind of preparation do you give them?

KH:  One of the first things I explain is that when people are in crisis or transition or any kind of ill health, creativity is a powerful tool. It allows people to find a new place in themselves for regaining something they have let go. We do a lot with substance abuse treatment, and I am always amazed at the people who will tell me about creative processes they have abandoned. I hear some form of “Oh, I stopped doing that when I started using” on a regular basis. We work with twenty-five to thirty people at Volunteers of America and who have had their felony sentence reduced because they are in a substance abuse program. My favorite moment is when it gets completely quiet as they become engrossed in painting or writing poetry. To me, that is the magic moment when they have opened up and allowed something new to come in. They leave more content than when they came in.

SD:  Transitioning into the role of “patient” can have a dehumanizing effect that intensifies the longer they are in the healthcare system. It is easy to see how a program like this could address that loss of self.

KH:  We have some partner sites dealing with immunity issues. Those patients are very limited in where they can go, even within the hospital—they certainly don’t go out to shows. People who have been in prison may not have heard live music in years. There are so many potential elements involved in this program that we keep it malleable and allow our artists to fill the needs as they are identified.

SD:  Where do you find the artists for this program? Are they volunteers?

KH:  They are not volunteers. A big part of the mission, from my perspective, is to support local artists. Everybody deserves to be paid for their work, and it is really important to me that we honor that ideal.

SD:  Do you accept volunteers?

KH:  I stumble over that because, although we are not certified to do therapy, what we do must be therapeutic. Part of the vetting process requires that our artists have already demonstrated that ability in other settings. They have to be out there already. Many times new artists are introduced to me by our current artists. Generally, we are not trying to get patients from point A to point B. But I do have some certified music and art therapists on my roster so I can send them to the more challenging sites.

SD:  What do you look for in a potential team member?

KH:  There are different things, like how present are you? Even if you’re playing in a lobby, people will come up and talk to you. Our artists have to really know how to balance their needs with the needs of the larger population. I also assess their ability to become secondary. Artists are very much about their own art, which is great. But this is less about the artists’ work and more about bringing out the creativity in others. Our artists need to have that ability to encourage their charges who think they can’t even draw a stick figure. Because when they do it and see what they are able to accomplish, that is when the “Wow” moment happens. In the case of substance abuse patients, this can become a substitute for their drug of choice. They can turn to crayons instead of beer and keep exploring this new thing they have found in themselves.

SD:  I know some of the hospitals have very strong internal programs. Norton Audubon has in-house music therapists.

KH:  We are partnering with them to enhance the positivity of the environment so those therapists can spend even more time bedside working with folks. We work with visual art therapists at Our Lady of Peace, where we bring in the other art forms, such as dance, movement, creative writing, etc. We do hear from the therapists that it is like getting professional development for them—they have the chance to get ideas from our people. We have a lot of win-win all the way around.

SD:  Once you have identified a potential addition to the roster, what is the process they go through?

KH:  Once they show they have already been successfully working in the community—maybe they have been volunteering at Maryhurst or in some of the long-term care facilities—we will ask one of our artists to mentor them. After a while, they will take the lead and the artists will shadow them. At a point, I will take them into the various environments they will encounter. It isn’t as though we can take fifteen artists and train them to go into each of our fifteen partner sites. But I want to see if they can make the leap from, for example, working with teenage girls to working with elderly folks who have dementia.

SD:  It sounds like you are already doing so much and having a lot of success. What would it take to make the program better?

KH:  At this point, we need more staff, and we’re working on that. That, of course, requires more funding.

SD:  Is this the only program in town?

KH:  I have heard that there are others—but that’s okay. It’s a big sandbox. There’s room for everybody. But we have to all work together so that we’re not throwing sand at each other. Ultimately, my goal is to keep partnering wherever possible and build this idea together.

SD:  Are there any outpatient programs where patients can continue exploring their creativity?

KH:  Once they are out of treatment, there are lots of opportunities to create. One of my goals is to be able to assist those who want to continue with finding an appropriate outlet. Right now we just don’t have the staff to do much of that. We have partners like Volunteers of America where we work with them for three to six months. The substance abuse program at the Veterans Administration (VA) is generally four weeks. Some we work with only once. The places where we can work with patients the longest are obviously the most effective in giving them tools for the future.

SD:  Could there also be a lot of benefit to families suffering caretaker strain?

KH:  We include them whenever we can. Once a month we do programming with the Alzheimer’s Association for the patient and their caregivers.

SD:  Music is one of the best ways to help Alzheimer’s patients come back to themselves. For some reason music memory is the last thing we lose.

KH:  I went to the Alzheimer’s unit at Nazareth Home one day and we sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Nobody remembered the story but they all knew the song. It seems like a no-brainer now, but we didn’t know that for a long time. They have done PET scans to see where various stimuli are acknowledged in the brain, and music lights up in both hemispheres! There are so many different areas of the brain associated with music.

SD:  How deep is your bench right now?

KH:  I have twenty artists on the roster right now. It’s a delicate balance between having enough work for them and keeping the programs active at all fifteen partner sites. If an artist is going out only once a month, we’re not really supporting them. But we also need variety, because we’re going back into places every week. It’s tricky. I would like to have a few more, but the financing has been a little uncertain this year.

SD:  What do you need going forward to make Arts in Healing thrive?

KH:  That’s a really interesting question and I’m sure I have a good answer in me. But it’s hard to think about plans for the future when you are so busy with the minutiae of today’s project management requirements. The first step for me is to get all of the basic stuff under somebody else’s purview.

SD:  How much does it take to operate the program currently?

KH:  I think we’re currently at about one hundred fifty thousand annually.

SD:  So it’s not a huge budget.

KH:  No, it’s really affordable. The artists get paid per hour, which includes prep time and travel. Sometimes they are going to two places to get in their two hours and doing a million other things to make it all work. But, for five hundred dollars, we can do a six-week residency.

SD:  How is the funding for this year shaping up?

KH:  We received our largest grant to date for the upcoming fiscal year—$35,000 from the Disabled Veterans National Foundation to fund our entire VA program next year. That’s currently three hours per week in the in-patient psychiatric ward and one hour a week in the substance abuse program. We were doing guitar lessons at the time we had to cut back. It was very popular and we are hopeful that we can open that up again. We have a program called Heroes Create, a peer-support dialogues group run by a VA staff person who is a veteran and trained as a peer-support specialist. Sometimes it’s hard to get the dialogue in because everyone is so focused on the art.

SD:  It seems like community-building is an important aspect of this project.

KH:  Yes, it is. Veterans seeking treatment can become isolated. We received a grant from the younger women’s foundation to pilot a program that brings the community and veterans together through storytelling and compassion. The goal is to build a community that honors the warrior process by transitioning from a combat warrior to a spiritual warrior. I’m really excited about that. A big part of this process for me is about making the community more whole.


If you are interested in finding out more about the Arts in Healing program or perhaps making a donation to help expand the offerings, go to or call 502.562.0195.


Scott Dowd[box_light]Scott Dowd has a wealth of experience working within and commenting upon the arts scene in Louisville. He has been involved with Kentucky Opera, the Louisville Orchestra, and Louisville Public Media. His talents and experience include: Actor; Director; Singer; Musician; Radio and Television Interviewer; Classical and News Jock; Public Speaking; Public Relations; Marketing; Development; Writer; Substantive Editor. He currently serves on the Board for[/box_light]