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Art, Music and a Robot: Inspirational Quad Cities Program Brings Cancer Patients to the Figge Art Museum on a Beam named “Genie”

“The highest purpose of art is to inspire.” ~ Bob Dylan

In 1874, Modest Mussorgsky composed “Pictures at an Exhibition” after attending a showing of Viktor Hartmann's art. This seed of historic inspiration recently blossomed into stunning creative collaboration between the Davenport, Iowa-based Quad City Symphony Orchestra (QCSO), Figge Art MuseumLiving Proof Exhibit, and Genesis Cancer Care Institute. With the help of the Living Proof Exhibit and a BeamPro called “Genie,” Genesis patients can take private tours of the Figge Art Museum. (Keep reading to see the video that brings this program to life.)

We recently sat down with Melissa Mohr, Figge Art Museum Education Director, Marc Zyla, QCSO Director of Education and Community Engagement, and Nicholas Propes, QCSO Digital Media Assistant to find more about this inspiring program.

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Tell us about yourselves and the roles you played in helping orchestrate this incredible project between QCSO, Genesis Cancer Care Institute, Living Proof Exhibit & the Figge Art Museum.

Melissa Mohr (MM, Figge): We found out about Beams a few years ago through a donor who is supportive of the arts in our community and is also connected with one of the major local healthcare providers, Genesis Healthcare System. He had seen a Beam during a trip to the De Young Museum in San Francisco and recommended that Genesis provide a Beam for the Figge. (We call our Beam “Genie,” which is short for “Genesis.”)

Marc Zyla (MZ, QCSO):Our relation to “Genie” is that the Symphony has worked hard lately to communicate about our mission by partnering with other organizations like the Figge. We’ve invested more into digital media to tell our story - part of that is coming up with video projects for our community that go along with the music we’re going to play. We really try to introduce new and different ways to interact with visuals, so we had the idea to recreate Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in a modern environment - hence the Figge Art Museum.

How is the program implemented? (i.e. how do patients get to take a tour with Genie?)

MM, Figge: The program involves graduate student assistants from the Museum Studies Graduate Program at Western Illinois University, who help patients at the Genesis Cancer Care Institute take tours via Genie while they are undergoing chemotherapy.

In our partnership with Living Proof Exhibit, we offer the program every Monday to provide private tours for cancer patients. Docents at the museum work with grad students stationed at Genesis, who help facilitate patients Beaming in and offer customized tours of the artwork on display at the museum. It’s a teamwork situation: you have one person who is offering the tour, one person controlling Genie, and then the caregivers who are helping the patients.

What is the reaction from the participants?

MM, Figge: The reactions from the patients are great - this program offers them an escape from the confines of their hospital rooms. Some want to explore the museum, others want tours and still others - many of whom have never been to the museum before - find it a nice way to connect with people during their long treatment sessions. One patient even said that the hospital walls disappear when she does these tours. It’s really about bringing art and people together, which is our ultimate mission at the Figge. The partnership with Living Proof Exhibit is ideal, as their mission statement is about providing the therapeutic benefits of the arts to people impacted by cancer.

Tell us about how the video project came about, and what the thought process was behind using Mussorgsky’s music and touring the Figge galleries - through Genie’s “eyes.”

MZ, QCSO: Our video project focused on Pictures at an Exhibition, a piece that was composed by Mussorgsky after visiting an exhibition of the art of Viktor Hartmann. We knew we wanted to do something that was a longer form video to give our viewers a chance to hear this music but to also serve as an introduction to what an experience at the Figge is really like. So we decided the process of making a video would include setting our digital media guru, Nick, loose in several galleries with the telepresence technology of Genie to assist him.

Nick Propes (NP, QCSO): Some of the movements we chose were selected because of the specific feel we were aiming for and to try to get contrasting movements that would fit multiple moods. We did a walk-through one day and matched paintings to certain movements that would highlight both the art and music together for a unique experience. For example, in a test run, we were piloting Genie and driving up to a piece of art that was a still-life with a dead swan and other birds, which matched perfectly with a movement called “Catacombs.” We made sure the brass hits lined up with Genie’s “shock” of seeing it.

MZ, QCSO: For me, it was important that anyone who watches our video has an experience that helps them understand what a trip to the Figge is like, but one that also shows the capabilities of Genie - to bring people to the museum and experience something they may not have been able to otherwise.

Do you have plans for future collaborations?

MM, Figge: As we’re bi-state and a regional hub, our immediate goal is to expand the program so it is available to other health systems in the area. Beyond that, we hope Genie can help us provide access to even more audiences who otherwise aren’t able to visit - for example, we have an interest in connecting with the prison system to provide Genie tours for inmates. We already work with the Juvenile Detention Center through other outreach initiatives and can see the positive impact this accessibility has had on participants. We’re open increasing accessibility wherever we can.

MZ, QCSO: This video project has definitely strengthened the symphony’s relationship with Living Proof Exhibit and the Figge. In the future, the QCSO is going to continue to make videos and follow partnership opportunities as they come up. For example, in partnership with Living Proof Exhibit, Quad Cities based composer Jacob Bancks will write a dramatic oratorio that the QCSO will  premiere next summer. Jacob will work closely with Living Proof participants to shape the final product. This coincides with the 10th anniversary of Living Proof Exhibit, and Genie will certainly play a role in this project.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.