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In the “before times”, pre-pandemic, a wonderful thing happened at WHO. As part of a general renaissance of the Organization, soon after Dr Tedros’ election and his call to staff for ideas that could uplift and jostle the organization, staff in various parts of the organization, including myself, came to the conclusion that arts and health were not mutually exclusive and in fact could be mutually supportive.

A long-simmering interest in how creativity and healing could form a positive spiral manifested itself in many ways, from the Organization's first serious look at the evidence for the healing power of the arts (Click here to watch), a landmark report from our European Office that is the first WHO review of the spectrum of health issues and artistic genres, to the WHO collaboration with Lady Gaga in the Together at Home online concert at the beginning of the pandemic, which not only raised a record amount of money for the emergency response and not only broadcast the early health messages of washing hands, keeping a safe distance, staying at home and honouring front-line workers in a compelling and authentic way, but, perhaps most crucially, embodied the notion of solidarity, that, in times of crisis, we are only as safe as the most vulnerable members of society.

Since then, a growing network of collaborating research centres and, most recently, the Healing Arts Symposium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, co-organized by WHO, the Met, New York University and Johns Hopkins University, with the participation of the NEA, the US National Institutes of Health, the governments of Australia and the Nigeria, the European Union and notable advocates such as Patrick Kennedy and Renee Fleming, have explored the research, practice and policy of arts and health as a virtuous triangle (Click here to watch).

Closer to home, we found that health professionals at WHO around the world had found solace, centring, escape, joy and healing in their private artistic endeavours. Kevin Crampton, a business analyst in the Information Technology Department (of all things!) took it upon himself to organize the first art exhibition by WHO staff. Of the dozens of pieces received from around the world, we have selected 9 for this special online gallery. Each artist is an amateur, with varying degrees of formal training. The pieces were selected not only for their aesthetic interest but for the personal stories behind them, which give a snapshot of the many, varied ways in which the arts can support health, from health promotion to recovery from physical or emotional injury, to building communities and giving an outside perspective to a world view. In our view of the arts, commercial value is of no importance. Personal value is all. 

The evidence shows that exposure to and participation in artistic activities can lower the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, which, when sustained at high levels in the body over time, can have severe physical and mental consequences and inhibit sleep, productivity and healing. Even without measurable biomarkers, however, we know that creativity, expression and imagination can help us navigate uncertain and anxious events that could affect our physical, mental and social well-being, by providing escape, perspective, expression, comfort and community and, in unavoidable negative outcomes, creating authentic personal meaning to make sense of misfortune.

Indeed, hope is a creative act.

The arts, in all their forms, acknowledge, celebrate, question, share and sometimes bring closure to moments of change in our lives. When we speak about the “healing power” of the arts, we aren't really talking about the arts curing anything. We are talking about how each of us might curate our lives. This is the heart and soul of health promotion. 


Christopher Bailey

Arts and Health Lead

World Health Organization