A legacy of art and medicine
Known internationally as a cardiologist and throughout New Mexico as a passionate collector of art, former University of New Mexico cardiology division chief Dr. Jonathan Abrams died July 18 in Albuquerque.
Abrams joined the UNM School of Medicine in 1970, practicing and teaching medicine there for more than three decades before retiring in 2008.
"Jon was a truly kind, compassionate and deeply concerned physician of the old-school variety," said Dr. Warren Laskey, chief of cardiology in the University of New Mexico's Department of Internal Medicine. "He made the effort to understand the many dimensions of his patients and their illness. That is why he was universally loved by them, and that is why he serves as a role model for today's generation of physicians."
But medicine is only part of Abram's legacy. A life-long art collector, he was the founder of the UNM Health Sciences Center's extensive art collection.
In 1991, he and former hospital administrator Tom Sloan were walking through the halls of the then new UNM Hospital Ambulatory Care Center and both remarked on the long, bare amounts of wall space stretching before them. The two approached the hospital's CEO to see if he would support starting an art program.
"We said we’d like to use this space for art. What do you think?” Abrams said in a 2008 interview. “He said, ‘I’ll support it.’ That’s what happened. It wasn’t more complicated than that.”
From that beginning, Abrams talked to artists he knew and persuaded people to give art to what would become the program’s collection, according Chris Fenton, director of the UNM Health Sciences Center's art program.
“He started bringing in pieces from his home to put on the walls,” Fenton said. “He met with the Tamarind Institute and convinced them to donate some pieces. That is how it all started.”
He also began an art gallery that regularly showcases the works of New Mexican artists. The first exhibit in the hallway gallery located on on the fifth floor of the UNM Hospital Ambulatory Care Center was the work of New Mexico photographer Miguel Gandert.
The HSC's collection has since grown and now numbers more than 2,500 works of art valued at more than $2.5 million.
Abrams was born in New York City. His parents moved to Chicago and then to California, where he graduated from Beverly HIlls High School before attending the University of California, Berkeley for his B.A. and the University of California Medical School at San Francisco for his M.D.
"He always said his parents moved to California because the schools were so good and his parents were able to get just inside the Beverly Hills school district. He was always grateful for the education he was able to take advantage of for free," said partner Nancy Whalen.
It was also an art history class he took while at Berkeley that sparked his lifelong interest.
Abrams completed his internship and first year of residency on the Harvard service of Boston City Hospital; he then completed one year of medical residency at the West Roxbury Veterans Administration Hospital. From 1967 to 1968, he was a cardiology fellow at Georgetown University Medical School in Washington DC.
After medical school, Abrams joined the armed forces and came to Albuquerque as an Army Capitan serving as a cardiologist at the Sandia Base Hospital. By the time he had completed his service in 1970, Abrams knew he wanted to stay in New Mexico and joined the newly formed UNM School of Medicine. He served as chief of cardiology from 1976 to 1991 and retired in October 2008.
Abrams, with his then-wife Fay Abrams, developed a large art collection with work primarily by New Mexico artists. He started the sculpture garden at the Museum of Albuquerque and the collection at UNM Hospital. The couple also donated many pieces of art to UNM, the Albuquerque Museum, the Art Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, and the Capitol Art Collection. In 2000, Abrams received the Governor's Arts Award. He was able to meld his love of cardiology with his love of art when he convinced artist Jim Dine to provide a heart drawing for the cover of Abrams' cardiology textbook.
Abrams is survived by his daughter, Wendy Paige Abrams, her husband Scott Fliegel and granddaughter Emma Bronte Fliegel; daughter Melissa Ambrose, her wife Pamela Ambrose; partner Nancy Whalen; long-time friend Jan Afton; and former wife, Fay Abrams.
A celebration of Abrams life will be held at a later date. You may contact Melissa Ambrose at firstname.lastname@example.org for details. Donations may be made in honor of Jonathan Abrams to one of the places he loved: the Outpost Performance Center, Tamarind Institute, or the Jonathan Abrams, MD, Gallery at UNM Hospital.