Co-authored with Alexey Timbul
Runways have always been a space of activism. The industry has been increasingly aware of its detrimental pressures: talent lost to addiction, accidents, unreported abuses. “Mental health is not fashion.” The infamous protest at a Gucci show led to institutional soul-searching with CFDA prioritizing commitment to its groundbreaking Initiative for Health, Safety and Diversity. Creative industries and public service historically share some of the highest professional burnout rates. New York City has invested in its pioneering wellness program for city employees. People recognize the need for collective support of those at the frontlines of global Change. Cities can become open platforms for creative collective healing. Case in point, this month’s Wellbeing Summit for Social Change in Bilbao, Spain. Co-founded by social entrepreneurs Aaron Pereira and Sandrine Woitrin, it brought together over a thousand guests from 60 countries: artists, scientists, activists, NGO workers, and funders. “Wellbeing inspires welldoing” said the posters around town and the tote bags of participants. The time is right for an in-depth conversation at the intersection of creativity, social justice, and economic alternatives for the future.
When it comes to examples of public design at the service of community-building, Bilbao hits bullseye as a destination. “The city itself experienced a major socio-economic transformation in the last thirty years anchored by Guggenheim Bilbao and other cultural initiatives,” said Sandrine Woitrin. Mayor Juan Mari Aburto attended at a tree-planting ceremony at the Mandala Lab. This interactive space inside a city park gives guests a chance to process difficult emotions creatively. Colombian American artist Yazmany Arboleda pushed the idea further in his Hospital for the Soul. This monumental, mirrored installation reflects an old magnolia tree, the moody Basque sky, and the passersby. Destined to become a hotspot for stylish selfies, the piece invites people to inhabit an interconnected world like site-specific DYI metaverse! “This is the first international gathering to make the arts a structural central aspect of why we came together. Learning about new and historic modes for healing. The Summit invited us to participate with our full bodies and all the senses, not just our brains,” shared Arboleda. As creative industries shift focus to sustainability, arts institutions lead the way in making wellness an urban planning priority.
Cultural diplomacy is another increasingly vital effort connecting individuals, communities, and governments. Storytelling allows us to rewrite problematic narratives. Recent examples include Israeli-Arab fashion collabs, holistic virtual reality artworks, or special attention to the voices of Ukrainian artists. Another “masterclass” was a Bilbao performance of Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski. The play starring Academy Award nominee David Strathairn honors the WWII envoy of the Polish and Jewish people to the Allied forces credited with “breaking the news” about the Holocaust. If truth ultimately wins, at what personal and collective cost? Attendee Gabriela Arenas de Meneses is the founder of Fundación TAAP, an arts education organization helping victims of state violence. “The role of journalists and artists is fundamental in peacebuilding because they help establish deep human connections. In the last 20 years, my energy was focused on the well-being of others, but now I understand that the only way I can keep doing my job well is by taking care of me, too,” reflected Arenas de Meneses.
Networking beyond business prospects is crucial for lasting wellbeing. Many cited the personal connection to likeminded change-makers as a major Summit highlight. Dinny Jusuf, chairwoman of Torajamelo, a fashion-forward project empowering women artisans in Indonesia, summarized the collective feelings best: “The first and strongest impression I felt was that I was not alone. I was humbled to know that there were many others working tirelessly for the greater good. It filled me and my team with great hope and enthusiasm.”