What It’s Like To: Curate Art for City of Hope

Orange County artist and educator Nancy Harrell selects pieces for City of Hope Orange County Lennar Foundation Cancer Center’s rotating art gallery.
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

I was asked by City of Hope Orange County President Annette Walker if I would be interested in curating the rotating gallery of Orange County artists. The concept was for living, breathing artists with living, breathing work that could keep the space alive in an area that could be scary for people to be within during a scary time in their life. 

I had just lost my younger sister to brain cancer, which was a shock to me. She was as healthy as anybody in our family and had just spent the summer months out here. She left in August to get her family back to school at home in Dallas. One morning, she woke up and her speech was garbled. She was not able to put a sentence together, and they thought she had a stroke. After multiple tests, they realized she had a glioblastoma tumor that was inoperable. Within a year, she was dead. It was just so shocking to all of us. So when this opportunity arose, I said yes immediately because I understand how cancer can impact lives. 

The rotating gallery really keeps the facility alive and doesn’t make it feel like a hospital. The art had to be from artists who live or work in Orange County, and it had to be about familiarity and about comfort so that people felt like they were walking into their living room. It’s meant to remind patients of places they love, to make them go, “Oh, I know that place! That reminds me of Crystal Cove,” or “That reminds me of when I was a teenager!” or whatever their connection to the art might be. 

My background in the art world goes back to the ’80s when I had to find a way to provide for my three children by myself. I wanted to stay in the art world, so I got another degree in secondary art education. I went to work as an art teacher and then the opportunity came up for me to be one of the founding directors for the visual arts department at Orange County School of the Arts. My career was 18 years long there. I eventually taught elsewhere, founded an art conservatory along the way, and I still do some consulting work at Santa Margarita Catholic High School today. I also said yes because I love the arts, and because it’s my personality to say yes. That sometimes gets me in trouble because I get overloaded, but I also think it makes life exciting. You can say yes sometimes and think, “That was one of the best things I ever did.”

When I got answers back from my call to artists, people were so excited and would say, “I’d love to be a part of this project.” I believe every artist had been touched by cancer, whether it was a family member, themselves, or a loved one. They all immediately said yes when they were chosen to be a part of the initial show we put together. They were so proud to be part of the gallery, and they each said it several times at our opening in August: “I’m so proud to be a part of this project that is impacting lives daily.” 

The feedback from doctors and nurses has been positive. They all have favorite walls and favorite pieces, and when we told them this art would be (rotated), they were excited. It will all be constantly changing, living, and breathing with the patients who come through here.
—As told to McKenna Sulick

Photograph Courtesy of City of Hope
“In designing the interior of our cancer center, we talked to hundreds of people and consulted with many experts. We wanted to make sure that when patients and their families stepped into this space, the only thing they feel is welcomed. And once you are welcomed, you also feel assured, and calmed and you can begin healing. Nancy searched for artists whose work offers people solace, confidence and hope. She understood how to display the pieces so that they could be experienced and enjoyed in the best possible setting. Now, patients and their families can stop, reflect, and ultimately benefit from the healing energy of the artwork that surrounds them. Nancy, we are grateful for your time and talents you have brought–they are tremendous and a treasure. We cannot thank you enough for gracing these walls with your creative talents.”
Annette Walker, president of City of Hope Orange County