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In big and broad strokes, Muzi Branch leaves a legacy through arts and health

He is retiring after 18 years leading the Arts in Healthcare program that has been a hallmark of VCU Health.

Man in a vest and collared work shirt speaks with two women sitting at a table. The women’s backs are to the camera. Muzi Branch, director of the VCU Health Arts in Healthcare program, speaks with team members at an event in June 2023. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

By Joan Tupponce

Muzi Branch’s 18-year arts legacy at VCU Health touches anyone who walks into its buildings.

“When we build new buildings or open up new clinics, they are just brick and mortar. But once Muzi puts his touch in the buildings or clinics, they come alive,” said Shirley Gibson, DNP, associate vice president of real estate at VCU Health.

In July, Branch will retire from his position as director of the Arts in Healthcare program, where he oversees a permanent art collection that includes 2,000 original works in 38 buildings. His contributions range from setting up team member art shows to expanding the program’s offerings to include art and music therapists who provide direct support to patients.

What Branch is most proud of is ensuring that those who enter any VCU Health building can see themselves in the artwork showcased. During his tenure, Branch — who has won many awards on diversity, equity and inclusivity — increased the amount of African American, Asian, Hispanic and LGBTQIA+ art included in the health system’s collection.

“This is imagery that created a welcome space for certain populations, that would make them feel comfortable,” he said. “They could see themselves in the culture-based imagery.”

The community relationships formed over Branch’s career have brought together VCUarts and VCU Health, the university-connected academic health system, in an uncommon way — making the atmosphere in hospital settings more comfortable for patients, families and team members.

Man in a vest and collared work shirt speaks holds a piece of art in his hand smiling. (cropped)

Muzi Branch is credited with expanding the Arts in Healthcare program during his tenure at VCU Health. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Stepping into his role at VCU Health

Branch started at VCU Health in 2005 after serving as director of Arts on the Square in Richmond and as assistant director of arts at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology in Petersburg.

He was working as a studio artist, holding an exhibition in Main Hospital, when he learned that his predecessor, Ted Batt, was leaving the health system. He told Batt he wanted to apply for the position, and as Branch says, “that was that.”

His ties to Arts in Healthcare trace back to his late teacher and mentor, former VCUarts Dean Murry N. DePillars, Ph.D., who started the program in 1986. DePillars passed away in 2008. It is one “of the oldest hospital-based arts programs in the country,” Branch said.

Branch, who graduated from VCU with a bachelor’s degree in 1980 and a master’s in art education in 1986, first met DePillars in the classroom. A working artist as well as a teacher and administrator, DePillars and his work, especially his illustrations in Chancellor Williams’ “The Destruction of Black Civilization,” were a big influence on Branch.

“Dr. DePillars gave us inspiration that a career in art was something we could achieve,” he said. “His African American art spoke to, for and about African Americans.”

When DePillars started the art initiative at VCU Health, it was often referred to as the “art cart program” because volunteers would hoist pictures into a big cart and roll them to patients’ rooms to see if they wanted to change the art in the room.

Later, the program expanded, bringing in art from local, regional and national artists to display in three gallery spaces — Main Hospital, Stony Point and North Hospital. Its new emphasis on culture and the arts led to the creation of the Cultural Program, which later morphed into Arts in Healthcare.

“Dr. DePillars saw the vision,” Branch said. 

Music and art go hand-in-hand

Branch was born at St. Philip Hospital, which served as MCV’s segregated hospital for Richmond’s Black community between 1920 and 1962. Because he is a two-time graduate of VCU with an 18-year career at the university, he refers to himself as “VCU black and gold through and through.”

A true Renaissance man, Branch was a percussionist in the marching band at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School and took art classes. His mother was an educator, and his father was an artist at heart. “What I pursued came from him,” Branch said.

One of his early influences was his high school music teacher, Joseph Kennedy Jr., who was also a jazz pianist. He taught Branch to appreciate all types of music.

“He played professionally and told me that I would be able to make a living in my art,” Branch said.

He has been able to continue his art and musical pursuits thanks to his talent, perseverance and 50-year professional career with his brother, saxophonist and songwriter James “Plunky” Branch, the leader of Plunky & Oneness of Juju. Muzi Branch has played in the band since its inception and also works with his brother at N.A.M.E. Brand Records.

Since coming to VCU Health, Branch has expanded Arts in Healthcare to include two music therapists and an art specialist as well as one contractual music therapist.

“They are available to every patient. They can help calm them before a procedure and work with children while getting infusions,” he said. Branch also started lunchtime concerts in the Gateway Building and has ensured that every VCU Health building is a healing environment for patients and employees.

“I love generating new ideas and new programs,” he said. “I am always looking for ways to serve.”

Artist, retired dentist and VCU School of Dentistry alum W. Baxter Perkinson Jr., D.D.S, has provided more than 1,000 paintings to Branch and the art program in the past 25 years.

“He and I have a very good working relationship,” Perkinson said. “Muzi is a unique man. He really has done a lot of unsung-hero work in art throughout the hospital. For people in the hospital, looking at a painting can help make them feel better.”

Arts coordinator Alexis Shockley values Branch as a boss. She appreciates the way he always steps in to help, no matter the task.

“He doesn’t ever feel that his position is too high up. He makes it as though I work with him and not for him. If I were to draw up my ideal supervisor, it would be Muzi,” she said. “He understands work-life balance. He’s a supportive supervisor.”

Branch never says no to anyone, said Gibson. “He is always there to help with planned events and those last-minute details that have been forgotten. He gets the job done with quiet competence.”

And Branch makes a difference. “I have been blessed and honored to work side by side with him, to see him perform his magic to bring science and art together,” Gibson added.

As far as the future is concerned, Branch plans to shift from buying art to making his own art. He’ll also be going on tour with his brother’s band.

“Being a fulltime creative has always been a dream of mine,” Branch said, “and now I will be able to make that my reality.”