As a child in Sierra Leone, Leone Elliott, MD, had conflicting desires about what to be when he grew up. He loved art and beautiful buildings and hoped to become an architect one day. But he also grew up next to a cemetery in a poor country where people didn’t have even the most basic access to healthcare, and he saw more funeral processions than any young boy should have to see. His earliest memories, he says, are of wondering why people die and what he could do to stop them from dying.
“I had promises I made to myself,” he said. Promises that if he had the opportunity, he would give back and become a healer. When he got into Fairmont State University in West Virginia he studied chemistry, and then attended Meharry Medical College in Nashville, an institution whose mission includes improving the health and healthcare of minority and underserved communities with an emphasis on providing opportunities to people of color and individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In medical school, however, Elliott — now 45, living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and married with two children — was missing the presence of having art in his life and felt as if he had lost his way. “I knew I wanted to incorporate art somehow into my practice,” he says. He started his residency in family medicine at St. Elizabeth’s in Boston, and finished it at Baton Rouge General Hospital.
When he began opening and managing urgent care clinics in Louisiana, Elliott would put beautiful art on the walls. But at the end of the day, he says, it still looked like a clinic, albeit a beautiful clinic. When he opened The Healthcare Gallery in Baton Rouge in 2014, Elliott turned the concept of putting art in medical clinics on its head, opening an art gallery and trying to figure out a way to see patients in it. He created partitions for privacy and a sliding wall to hide the medical equipment. “When you walk in there’s nothing visible to indicate this is a doctor’s office,” he says. “I have art exhibitions here all the time and people have no idea they’re in a medical space.”
Although Elliott creates charcoal and graphite still lives and watercolors as a hobby, he does not show his own work in the gallery. His mission is to use the gallery as a platform to show the work of emerging artists and he is dedicated to finding artists that have not only talent, but also a true passion for their work. The gallery doesn’t solely support itself on the sale of art, but makes money on medical services as well, so Elliot is able to give the artists he shows 80% of the profits from sales instead of the typical 50/50 split most galleries take (some give their artists only 40%). His share he says, pays for the gallery’s curator and shipping costs. Elliott says some of the artists he shows make and sell art as their livelihood and he hopes to help make their work sustainable. Every quarter he has an exhibit and does a mixture of group shows and solo shows. “We’ve done extremely well for the past few years,” he says.
Working as a resident in a state that is always 49th or 50th in the country in terms of health and education, Elliott was inspired to make a difference when he arrived in Louisiana. He believes a lot of the problems his patients face are caused by their diet and lifestyle and while he started taking insurance and seeing sick patients at The Healthcare Gallery, he came to believe that the sickest patients he saw did not participate in wellness and didn’t even want to hear about it from their PCPs. The clinic soon found its niche as a wellness facility only; patients would keep their PCP and come to The Healthcare Gallery when they were well to maintain that wellness through cleanses, vitamins, massage therapy, physical therapy, food sensitivity testing and other procedures. The typical client, he says, is 20-60 years old and overwhelmingly female. If they become sick, they go to their PCP, but to minimize the chances of that, they visit him and get to be treated in a beautiful art gallery.
“This space is a way to have people embrace wellness and vitality,” he says. “Medical institutions are designed to take care of sick people and generally we don’t do a lot in terms of wellness. I’m really trying to get people functional and healthy instead of waiting for them to become sick and sedentary. I wanted to depart from that and say, ‘Here’s what life could be.'”