The Creative Economy is ready to partner with Global Health & Sustainable Development, but are we?

Oftentimes, the creative industries are left out of conversations about global health. In this article, we aim to provide an overview of the intersection of arts and global healthcare, existing research and projects in this sector, as well as why it’s more important now than ever to encourage artists and storytellers to enter healthcare spaces.

Did you know that in 2019, the UN General Assembly declared 2021 as the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development? 

According to the UN, the creative economy is the sum of all forms of knowledge-based economic production in the realm of the creative industries. This includes, but is certainly not limited to: advertising, architecture, design, fashion, film, software, photography, music, performing arts, and more. 

The creative economy’s role within global health and sustainable development has been undervalued by both sectors, and this outdated view is finally beginning to shift. In 2019, the WHO released a white paper synthesizing the global evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and well-being, with a specific focus on the WHO European Region.

Then, for the first time ever, in 2020 the World Conference on the Creative Economy (WCCE) took place in Indonesia. This conference consisted of representatives and experts from governments, private sectors, think-tanks, civil society, and international organizations.

Why should the Creative Economy intersect with Global Health and Sustainable Development?

COVID-19 has drastically changed the way we work and connect, spurring massive shifts in how we share information. With our lives uprooted and our time being spent more online now than ever, we are constantly bombarded with images of pandemic suffering – through the news, our social media feeds, and dominating the topic of conversations at work and at home. Unfortunately, our human desire to connect is what can also cause individual and collective suffering. Our innate capacity to empathize with one another can cause us to open the floodgates too far, exposing us to a constant stream of global turmoil. COVID deaths around the world, protests, natural disasters, and more, are all shown to us with easy access as soon as we wake up and check our screens. We are bombarded by suffering 24/7 – this is where the creative economy can step in to help.

In 1998, the Acheson Report, formally known as the Independent Inquiry into Inequalities in Health Report, defined public health as “the art and science of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts of society.”

Although a fundamental part of our lives, health is a finicky topic for many, and a sensitive space that can be hard to reach. The artists and storytellers around us can help break those barriers by appealing to our empathetic minds first, before our rational minds. Art and culture can help us connect and change the narrative of how something is experienced.

How has Art and Global Health Already Intersected?

There is a growing movement of artists and global and public health professionals advocating for the intersection of their respective fields. Some notable examples include global health professional, filmmaker and curator Lisa Russel’s efforts to advocate for artists to have a seat at the table of UN development agencies, as well as the Toronto based experiential art festival Dying. – a collaboration between Taboo Health and OCAD University which uses a public event series as a research tool to open conversations on death and dying. 

Another notable example of the arts and public health intersection is the research of Dr. Sarina Isenberg and Stephanie Saunders, where participatory public art is being used as a way to source and elicit new perspectives on palliative care. This was a collaborative project with innovation designers Karen Oikonen and Kate Wilkes, and the design installation was eventually hosted at the 2020 Dying. Festival.

Despite being an undervalued topic in global health and sustainable development, public art’s power in advocating for important public and global health issues has been an ongoing theme in the creative industries. One such example is of a boob sculpture in London that started conversations about the stigma behind public breastfeeding.

Another example is Banksy’s “The Walled Off Hotel” exhibit, which showcased the extent of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict through bookable hotel rooms touted as “the room with the worst view”. They aimed to advocate for broader issues of peace, justice, and reducing inequities through exhibition art, and especially encouraged young Israelis to visit. 

Can Art and Culture be an Ongoing Space for Healing in Society?

Theoretical physicist Brian Greene eloquently said that art has the capacity to elicit feelings that bypass the conscious rational mind. This allows us to feel connected beyond pure reason, logic and even proof. What if the global creative community is uniquely able to connect a diverse group of humans at a level above our declared opinions, positions and even taboos? In our communities, could the act of holding a safe public space to feel heard, be validated and to express be enough to relieve both individual and collective suffering in some way? Indeed, the time has finally come for us to join forces with our creative industry partners. The question is: how are we getting ready?

Taboo Health is a Toronto-based non-profit that aims to destigmatize and celebrate our humanity, by activating cultural engagement and public health innovation that heal, unite, and transform futures. We specialize in transformative storytelling for public health and global health. If you wish to explore and engage more on topics like these, we invite you to check out our fourth upcoming Dying. Festival in January 2022, centered on exhibiting art related to death and dying. Is your health or social good organization looking for new ways to deliver their awareness campaigns and to engage diverse communities in a human-centric way? Are you or your organization looking for an artist or designer to capture and express authentic stories of your communities? Contact [email protected] for inquiries, or join our growing community!


September 19, 2021


Helen Chen and Maria Cheung