The healing arts

Jon Hallberg, M.D. — Minneapolis’ performing arts practitioner

Dr. Jon Hallberg. Photo by Susan Schaefer

The economic impact of the creative arts in Minneapolis astonishes. Estimated at over $4.5 billion in sales, or eight times that of Minneapolis’ sports sector according to the 2015 Creative Vitality Index (CVI), an economic measure used by the city, it has earned our region a lofty place as a national creative mecca.

Behind such stunning statistics toil humans whose creativity and innovation fuel this so-called creative class, dubbed by author Richard Florida. Frequently laboring for the sheer love of their craft, many visual and performing artists, directors, inventors and innovators produce from an inner creative core more likely fueled by passion than personal gain. These makers are marked by an almost holy drive to create — and when their artistry and intent collide, it often yields something extraordinary in its wake.


“Wherever the art of Medicine is loved, there is also a love of Humanity.” — Hippocrates  

In the autumn of 1965, Minnesotans had two reasons to revel: At center stage, the Minnesota Twins had clinched their first pennant since 1933 (when they were known as the Washington Senators) and were in a hot contest against the colossus Los Angles Dodgers in the World Series being played for only the second time in history west of the Mississippi River. With boyish glee, Dr. Jon Hallberg pegs his birth to this major league occasion.

Though the Twins failed to bring home the title that fall, off in tiny New Ulm, Minnesotans Ken and Suanne Hallberg brought home their infant son, Jon, who would go on to honor our state with multiple accolades and a world-class reputation in the unlikely field of performing arts medicine.

Just like big league teams with their high profile sports medicine doctors, elite performing artists from dancers and actors to orchestral musicians and opera singers now engage medical specialists to help keep them functioning at peak levels. The field even has its own professional medical association, PAMA, founded in 1988 with the goal of prevention, treatment and rehabilitation of medical problems unique to performing artists. Due to the high expectations of excellence and perfection, fierce competition, long periods of rehearsals, repetitive motions and extreme performance anxiety, such artists experience a disproportionate incidence of maladies.

Who better to serve these elites than a medical expert who himself shares some of the same sensibilities and talents? Although Hallberg describes himself as, “a reformed perfectionist,” his demanding and multifaceted practice reveals a rigor not typical of a family medical clinician.

“I love collaborating with fun, creative people,” he beams, overtly proud to be the medical specialist for members of the Minnesota Orchestra, Guthrie Theatre, Minnesota Opera, SPCO, travelling Broadway shows and more.

But Hallberg himself is a bona fide member of the Creative Class. Well known locally as a radio personality, the medical analyst on Minnesota Public Radio “All Things Considered,” Hallberg also founded, directs and hosts the “Hippocrates Cafe,” an ongoing series of performance events that explore health care topics using professional actors and musicians.

He says the cafe was born out of, “my love of the arts, like my work in radio, with over 500 spots on MPR, and my deep connections to the local performing arts communities. In science, there’s the idea of translational research. That is, finding a way to take basic science and translating it into clinical ideas to serve humankind. I’d like to think that ‘Hippocrates Cafe’ is a way to translate words — poetry, non-fiction, historical document, etc. — into something powerful when read by an actor to an assembled audience.”

“I’m in a very happy place on stage, sitting amongst actors and musicians, almost all of whom are friends, making art with a purpose,” he confesses.

Moreover, Hallberg’s nuclear family is a performance franchise in its own right. Together for over 31 years with wife Diane, the Hallberg family shares a performing arts core. Diane is the band and orchestra director at the Upper School of Minnehaha Academy and also an accomplished flutist, as is daughter Greta, a Minnehaha Academy senior who plays in symphony and is a budding actress in her third year of the Park Square Theater Ambassador program. Son Andrew, a biology major at St. Olaf, plays trombone in the band and, of course, is dating a flutist. Hallberg plies his musical chops on sax.

I asked if Hallberg’s dual loves of arts and science arose simultaneously. Medicine came first. When the family moved to Brussels, Belgium in 1973 for his father’s 3M engineering job, Hallberg attended the International School and got to travel widely throughout Western Europe. From those three years abroad he conjures a vivid memory about playing army: “Rather than pretending that I wanted to shoot or kill people, such as the enemy who were often Nazis, I always wanted to play a medic. I asked an older English boy across the street to paint a red cross on my green plastic army helmet.” With this prominent insignia and some of his dad’s old ACE bandages, young medic Hallberg took to “healing the wounded.”

His love affair with the arts came later — while studying at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

“It was during med school that I became aware of the medical humanities as an academic field. I started reading the works of physician-writers like Lewis Thomas, Richard Selzer and Oliver Sacks,” he explains. “Simultaneously, I became aware of a field called performing arts medicine, and the idea of caring for performing artists was incredibly appealing. On some level I knew that that’s what I wanted to do.”

As he was finishing his residency, Hallberg got a chance to appear as an extra in the film, “Beautiful Girls,” playing a doctor, no less. Soon after, he met one of his fellow actors in the clinic he was rotating through. “I joined a practice downtown and soon I was providing medical care for Broadway productions, movies, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Guthrie, the Minnesota Opera, the SPCO, you name it. All of that work has continued to the present day.”

Hallberg emphasizes that all of this was mostly organic, mostly serendipitous, with a healthy pinch of luck. With an appointment on the University of Minnesota Medical School’s teaching faculty, he spends majority of his time seeing patients. “Being a generalist, a family physician, is the reason I can do all this work.”

Full disclosure, Hallberg is my family physician. We met a few years back at a lecture he was giving on holistic medicine through the University’s Center for Spirituality and Healing. At the time, I was studying Ayurvedic medicine. It turns out my former doctor, Kevin Kelley, was Hallberg’s own GP. A few years later, with Dr. Kelley’s blessing and a referral, I transferred my health care to Hallberg’s Mill City Clinic.

I know personally how vital Hallberg’s family practice is to him. He empathically positions this part of his work as primary to his healer-to-the-artist’s role, speaking passionately about his desire to treat patients from all walks of life and economic and social backgrounds. Hallberg selected the clinic’s riverfront location to serve a diverse population. And for this fortunate group of patients, he offers yet another manifestation of creative arts as part of healing.

With great intention Hallberg selected local architects, Perkins + Will, to create an actual gallery for his clinic waiting room. At a recent exhibition opening, he told the assembled guests that his lifelong observations of typical doctors’ lounges featuring stale stock art on their walls for 20 to 30 years didn’t foster healing environments.

He changed that, theming Mill City Clinic’s gallery-waiting room, “Art in the Healing Environment.” The space feels more museum than medicinal. With an eye toward quality, Hallberg hired local artist Donna Bruni Cox as a professional curator. Clinic exhibits change three times a year, allowing countless local artists exceptional exposure. The expansive, naturally lit, floor-to-ceiling space features not only hung work but also three-dimensional art displayed in various vitrines. Part of Hallberg’s intent is to make art accessible to the public, who can easily see the exhibits from the clinic’s soaring windows across from Gold Medal Park, or are welcome to walk in. Such a model is profoundly unique for any family practice.

There is a well-established link between medicine and the arts. Many great thinkers, such as Aristotle, Maimonides, Linnaeus, Darwin and Freud have been physicians, as have great writers like Rabelais, Schiller, Keats, Chekhov and Conan Doyle. And, numerous physicians have written with great eloquence about disease and medical practice, such as Hippocrates, Galen, Burton, Sydenham, Osler, Thomas and recently Abraham Verghese and Atul Gawande.

Hallberg’s views about this link? “Medicine brings us to center stage in the drama of life – and death,” he maintains. “Every single day when we enter an exam room, a hospital ward, an operating suite, the emergency department, we’re confronted by pain and suffering and fear, tempered and offset by moments of tremendous joy. The exam room is a confessional — and what an honor and burden that is! It is no wonder, then, that there are so many ‘physicians hyphens,’ as in physician-writer, physician-playwright, physician-photographer, physician-philosopher.”

As is the case with many public figures, Hallberg is a self-proclaimed introvert: “I recharge by being alone, being quiet, spending time with my family. The perfect date night is a nice dinner and a movie, often at home.” Family is the center of Hallberg’s universe, with world exploration at its outer edges. His particular healing light emanates from deep within. His education has merely supplied the switch.

Though the Twins may have lost in 1965, that year nevertheless brought our state an authentic MVP — a Most Valuable Physician.

Hallberg in the Mill City Clinic's waiting room, which doubles as a gallery. Photo by Susan Schaefer
Hallberg in the Mill City Clinic’s waiting room, which doubles as a gallery. Photo by Susan Schaefer