Text: Interview by Antoine Bal
Photo: Jeanne Martel - Service d'appui multimédia (SAM)

"The hospital taps into the power of humanity"

Caroline de Watteville will retire next year. The Cultural Activities Director at Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) talks about her long-time commitment to soothing the soul by promoting art in the hospital.

How did you become "Mrs Culture" at CHUV?

I started at CHUV in 1991 as a secretary. It was a day job I had done in the past off and on to finance my art history studies in Florence, Italy. After freelancing for several years in Florence, where I taught art history at an American university and worked for the Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation, I wanted to find a job in Switzerland. My dream was to land a job in a museum. Shortly after I started working at CHUV, the hospital started accepting applications for a new exhibition manager. The position become available when the chair decided to leave. Management asked me to apply. I was completely caught off guard since I didn't know the first thing about culture in a hospital environment. The movement was started by UNESCO, which had been working to create a cultural policy within hospitals since the end of the 1980s. Their symposiums and publications showed me just how important it was to care for the social, cultural, and spiritual well-being of the patient. The ethical component of this work inspired me to make a long-term commitment to the issue. Everything had been in place at CHUV since 1983, when the main building opened. A cultural commission already existed. In effect, the hospital asked me to professionalise the position.

How did you make the position your own?

It wasn't easy. Naturally, culture takes a back seat to research and healthcare, especially when the hospital is trying to tighten its belt.

I had to work hard to defend this approach. I started by convincing artists and earning their trust, then turned to winning over people at the hospital.

I was soon buoyed by the unfailing support of the cultural commission. Over time, we recruited new and dedicated members to the commission. Most are caregivers, doctors, or ethics or history of medicine professors who love music and contemporary art and are involved in the region's cultural scene. The commission approves and supports my projects, so its role is fundamental. Together, we determine whether or not a piece of art is a good fit for the unique context of the hospital. With this expertise, we are freer and are able to make bolder choices. We’ve also been able to established valuable partnerships with Musique & Médecine, the Alice Bailly Foundation, the Lausanne Conservatory (HEMU—Haute École de Musique de Lausanne), the Vidy-Lausanne Theatre, and, more recently, the Payot Foundation.

How would you describe your cultural policy?

My number-one criteria is quality, with the understanding that a university hospital is an academic site and a place of excellence that deserves a culture that is on par with its image.

From an ethical standpoint, I think it would be unfortunate to provide this community centrepiece with cultural resources from the lowest bidder.

However, it's not there to be invasive. Culture at the hospital is meant to support the patient—to be present without being overwhelming. Art makes people free. It is a major focal point in every unit thanks to the works that make up CHUV's collection.

What does the hospital mean to you?

It’s a truly incredible place. It’s the only academic institution that is so intimately involved with our lives in this way. The hospital taps into the power of humanity. It acts as a focal point for ethics and a living crossroads for the main issues we’re facing as a society. The hospital is a cosmopolitan place at every level that includes all generations. People from the various professions all support each other as well. CHUV's main hall is its own street that has its own stores, post office, and flower shop. It’s the heart of the building—the main square of the hospital campus. It’s the kind of institution that you learn to love very early on.

For someone who works as a culture broker, how does the hospital serve as a unique method of mediation?

It’s a strategic place for communication. However, it isn't a laboratory, unlike the White Cube, a showcase used by modern art museums and galleries.

At a hospital, the audience is the priority. These people are struggling with major challenges in life and are often in distress.

Our work focuses on the intersection between reason, science, technology, medicine, emotion, and irrationality. That’s why art has every right to be in a hospital. Art gives voice to the inexpressible. Art serves as a bridge.

Your work focuses on creating ties between art and science.

Yes. My position is unique in that I play a role in scientific communication. That's a significant advantage. We invite CHUV experts who are at the cutting edge of science to take part in Arts and Science Conferences to showcase musical, literary, visual, and medical perspectives on a specific topic. Art contributes to knowledge. I’m in a position to foster a dialogue between contemporary art, medicine, and ethics. This year, the theme is “identity, otherness, and metamorphosis”. It examines our relationship with ourselves and others as well as the challenges created by the technical and scientific advances in medicine. The exhibitions of Camille Scherrer as well as Jean Crotti and Jean-Luc Manz are accompanied by concerts from the students at HEMU. These events are organised around an evening of discussion on augmented humanity and neuroprostheses with Professors Philippe Ryvlin, Jocelyne Bloch, and Grégoire Courtine and the photographer Matthieu Gafsou, whose recent work on transhumanism garnered global attention.

What’s the most important thing your time at CHUV has given you?

It has made me feel useful. I’ve enjoyed gaining a greater sense of citizenship and becoming more involved. After writing my thesis and working for several years on specialised topics, this involvement in everyday life and the feedback I’ve received as a result have made me more motivated.

My career has also made me aware of how lucky I am to have a job that aligns with my values and yet is still very much grounded in reality.

Here at CHUV, we connect the strength of art and culture to the strength of life and everyday reality. After all, culture helps us live.

How do you think this position will change in the future?

The good news is that my job will be renewed. The hospital will be accepting applications next summer. My successor will pursue his or her own vision, which will naturally lead to changes. That’s a good thing. The tools that are already in place are incredible, especially the cultural commission, which will continue to be useful in the future.

What will the future look like for you?

I will retire in May 2020. I still have many adventures ahead of me, and I’m working on a publication for the ten-year anniversary of our Arts and Science Conferences. After that, I’m still considering a number of projects that I’ve yet to confirm. One of my goals is to have more time to read.




Caroline de Watteville, pictured in front of the works of Jean-Luc Manz (left) and Jean Crotti (right), on display in CHUV's main hall in spring 2019.