Creativity To Change How We Experience Health Care

If you missed it last week, NPR reported on a recently published book about the need to inject creativity to make the practice and interaction with medicine a more empathetic experience.  Among the examples cited are artist collectives who raised money to pay medical bills and forgive medical debt by creating works of art out of medical bills which they sold, (or in at least one case, immolated).  The piece also mentioned design changes like creating gentler sounds for medical devices so that patients weren’t constantly jarred by harsh beeps around them.

The author of the book Emily Peters mentioned that while it seems like medical professionals are very much in control of their environment, they actually feel quite powerless.

 Physicians and surgeons and health care administrators and people who, to me, seem very, very powerful, [they] feel very powerless. And so the book came about as thinking about power and change. And then I realized that artists have this unique intersection where they are very powerful, they bring a lot of the things that were missing in health care, trying to build a better future.

She cited a couple examples of color choices in medicine which may seem like long established traditions or having emerged from research, but are really just arbitrary decisions someone made that caught on. Peters assumed the white coat ceremony had roots that extended back to the medieval period but was really the result of a Chicago doctor deciding in 1989 that students weren’t dressing professionally enough.

Same thing with the advent of the medical green, [the ubiquitous color of medical supplies]]. There’s a spinach green that came from a surgeon here in San Francisco, just working to try to reduce eyestrain, but that became very standard in medicine. And then there’s also a minty green, that a color theorist in Chicago just decided that that was the color for health care, that minty green was going to save us all and was going to look so beautiful.

When people were asked what colors they wanted to see in hospitals, they responded with neon purples, reds and oranges rather than the assumed soothing pastels. Peters suggests that LED lights would allow the colors of spaces to be customized to suit those occupying them. She also discusses a chapter in the book about how puppetry is being used to train medical students.

As I read the article, I was hoping there would be more recognition/initiatives to involve creative folks in the design of medical environment. I haven’t spent much time in hospitals, but there are a lot of repetitive sounds that get on my nerves so anything that mitigates things like that and improves other environmental factors and interactions would be welcome. More than that, it would be good to have the contributions of creatives to health and medicine recognized beyond just treatment and therapy for the sick and infirm.

The Bell Works, But It Needs You

A couple weeks ago, I caught a story on NPR about a temporary monument exhibit that has been placed on the National Mall in Washington, DC.  While a little more permanent than a pop-up exhibit, it is only meant to appear on the Mall for a limited time.   The project, Beyond Granite, was initiated by Monument Lab which commissioned six artists “.…to think about histories that haven’t been commemorated by the Mall and to look to moments when the Mall was charged by people, not statues.”

One of the pieces is a playground inspired by a picture of a Baltimore playground taken a few days after it was segregated showing black and white children playing together. Young visitors are able to play on the equipment which comprises the piece.

Another is a piece commemorating Marian Anderson’s 1939 Easter Day concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after she was prohibited from performing in Constitution Hall because she was Black.

The piece that caught my ear was “Let Freedom Ring,” that plays “My Country Tis of Thee,” a song Anderson sang in her concert. The installation plays all but the last note leaving a bystander to step forward and pull a lever to complete the song.

“The piece is simply saying, America is not America without you as an active citizen,” Ramírez Jonas says. “It needs you in some way.”

Doing a little more research, I discovered the sculptor, Paul Ramírez Jonas, is chair of the Art Department at Cornell University. An article on Cornell’s website provided more information on the philosophy behind the piece and the bystander’s role.

Before participants pull the lever to ring the last bell measuring more than two feet tall and wide, Ramírez Jonas asks them to declare why they are doing it: Are they celebrating “freedom to” do something, or “freedom from” something? They can preserve their choice in a graphite rubbing of one of those two prompts, inscribed on opposite sides of the bell.

“I’m not telling you what your idea of freedom is,” Ramírez Jonas said. “I’m just suggesting that there’s flexibility, that there’s room for inserting yourself.”

Another inscription shows the song’s first verse with selected words missing, inviting participants to modify the lyrics – as Anderson did when she sang “our country” instead of “my country,” and “we sing” instead of “I sing.”

The process of “pulling together,” Ramírez Jonas said, occurs through awareness of others’ expressions of freedom and a sense of collective responsibility. Reflecting a bias toward optimism, Ramírez Jonas said, he never contemplated a design that might have rendered “America” unable to be completed.

“The bell works,” he said, “but it needs you.”

Reading a Bloomberg article on the project, I became aware of another piece by Wendy Red Star, an Apsáalooke (Crow) artist. It features an enlarged version of the artist’s thumbprint encased in glass and outlined in red soil. The names of 50 Crow leaders who signed agreements with the US government, often by using their thumbprints. The name of the piece, “The Soil You See…” comes from the words of one of the few survivors of Battle of Little Bighorn

“The soil you see is not ordinary soil — it is the dust of the blood, the flesh and bones of our ancestors. . . . You will have to dig down through the surface before you can find nature’s earth as the upper portion is Crow.”

Quotas For Low Value Degrees

This morning Arts Emergency, a UK based organization which advocates for the arts & humanities and puts a lot of effort into finding mentors for young creatives, post the following on Twitter:

“Hands up who took a ‘low value degree’ & wouldn’t be where you are without it. Hands up who thinks EVERY young person should have the opportunity to do the same. Hands up who thinks higher education shouldn’t be reduced to ‘produces high earners’.”

This was in response to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s proposal that cap the number of students universities can accept into “low value” degree programs according to The Guardian.

Courses will be capped that do not have a high proportion of graduates getting a professional job, going into postgraduate study or starting a business, the prime minister will announce on Monday.


The numbers cap is unlikely to affect the bulk of courses offered by Oxbridge or Russell Group universities, whose students tend to go on to “highly skilled” jobs requiring a degree and above-average earnings.

Critics of the move say that it effectively penalises universities and courses with a high proportion of working-class students, who have fewer financial resources or family support and so are more likely to drop out.

“This will effectively act as a red flag to students. Who wants to apply to a ‘low value’ course?” said one vice-chancellor, who added that universities might also become more cautious over admitting students who might be less likely to graduate or want professional careers.

I don’t know if it was the enthusiasm for the topic or the low level of traffic on Twitter, but my feed was solidly filled by this topic with only a smattering of posts on other topics. It was hard to believe this wasn’t listed as trending.  After scrolling and scrolling I was surprised to see I saw still on posts from seven hours prior. I began to worry I would hit the 600 post limit recently announced for people who didn’t pay to be verified before I got to the original post that started it all.

There were a lot of great responses and I probably missed some of the deeper words of wisdom in the mix, but a very clear, obvious response from Milo Harries caught my eye:

I obviously have a ton of thoughts on this, but really they boil down to:

Does anyone that has ever met me really think I’d have added more value to the world if I’d based my career decisions on money?

If you haven’t seen it already, a similar conversation is bouncing around in the US and I suspect other countries around the world. So it is something to which to pay attention.

You Wanna Be Where Everybody Know Your Name

I am not sure when Culturebot fell off my daily reading list, but the last time I referenced a post was 2014. Thankfully linked to a piece by Andy Horowitz this week so the blog is back on my radar.  Andy wrote a relatively long piece about the need to focus on audience need and experience. While he has a TL;DNR summary at the beginning, the really good stuff is buried in the expanded version.

The broad strokes won’t be new to long time readers. Horowitz notes that despite the wake up call of Covid and all the money funders have provided for engagement and innovation, a lot of theaters are still focusing on legacy audiences and providing the same type of audience experiences as they had in the past.

He says arts and culture organizations need to be creating a sense of belonging and connection for new audiences. He uses a couple of personal examples. In the first, he talks about arriving in NYC and wanting to be a part of what was happening at P.S. 122, (now known as Performance Space New York), because so much great work was happening. But he couldn’t figure out a way in. Everybody already seemed to know everyone else. He started getting involved with other organizations and projects until he eventually cultivated the right relationships and started working at P.S. 122.

In another part of his piece, he raises a similar example of his 4.5 year old son changing pre-schools mid-year:

 It was a bumpy transition since at midyear all the other kids knew each other; some had started “going to school” together during the pandemic. …His teachers said he might not feel comfortable onstage and might prefer to sit with us; he came home from school telling us how he wasn’t able to learn the songs or the choreography because the other kids already knew it, things like that. As the day approached, we were filled with trepidation and uncertainty. But lo and behold, when graduation day came, our little guy sat with his class, walked onstage with his class, sang the songs, did the choreography, and behaved perfectly the whole time!! I have never been more invested in a performance in my life.

He talks about how brave people need to be to take chances in so many respects, including learning new things and trying to integrate into social settings in which we don’t feel we belong.  Horowitz reiterates what I have written before about creating an environment in which people can see themselves and their stories depicted and spend time with family and friends. Something I have overlooked is working to provide the sense you are among friends even if you didn’t know anyone when you arrived. (his emphasis)

I think that this is what every audience everywhere wants when they come to the theater. We want to feel like we are meeting up with friends. We want to see people we know in the lobby, we want to see people we know onstage, we want to know the person that works in the box office and the ushers, we want to know the people seated next to us and across the room in another section so we can wave to them and meet them at intermission for a drink. There is nothing worse than feeling like a stranger milling around with other strangers awkwardly avoiding eye contact, worrying about if you belong. If you run a theater and you aren’t trying to create that sense of welcome, belonging and inclusion with your audience, then you are failing them, it doesn’t matter what you put onstage.

As someone whose name is on an alcohol license, I am a little wary about encouraging people to literally replicate this exact scenario, but one experience Horowitz touts as bringing people together was a scheme in which an event made ordering a single beer as expensive as ordering a beer for 10 people. The result was that strangers organized themselves into groups to get the cheapest possible drinks they could:

I don’t remember the exact amount but a single beer was, I think, $10 and 10 beers was maybe $1? Like that. So as soon as someone got to the front of the line they immediately started talking to the people around them to get enough drink orders together to get the cheaper drinks. Never have I ever seen a group of strangers connecting and laughing and cooperating so quickly and joyfully as I did that night. I’m pretty sure that the bar was itself an art project.

Perhaps it was a lesson the TV show Cheers was teaching us back in the 80s and we just weren’t paying close enough attention.