An Innovative Approach to Brain Health through Community Arts

Creative Minds, the San Francisco community arts for brain health initiative, recently celebrated the music, dance, photography, and visual arts of over 100 community artists during a week-long exhibit.

Creative Minds Exhibit 2023_older man and woman

Above: Participating community artists enjoy the opening of the “Community + Art + the Brain” exhibit at SOMArts in San Francisco, California. Photo by Elisabeth Fall.

What happens when you bring together artists, health care specialists, and community centers to support the brain health of older adults in San Francisco?

On August 4, Creative Minds, the San Francisco community arts for brain health initiative, celebrated the opening of “Community + Art + the Brain,” a weeklong exhibit of brain health and arts events at SOMArts Cultural Center that includes the work of over 100 community artists in San Francisco. Through different media—including music, dance, photography and visual arts—the exhibit demonstrates the power of community and creative expression to support brain health equity and wellness for all.

Participants in the "Every Body Moves" dance initiative

Above: Global Atlantic Fellow Magda Kaczmarska (second from the right) and fellow dancers perform during the "Every Body Moves" showcase during the “Community + Art + the Brain” exhibit. Photo by Elisabeth Fall.

Using Art to Promote Brain Health and Create Community

Though there is no known cure for the diseases that cause dementia, arts and creativity are key to enhancing brain health as we age, and artists help us to see the world in new ways and to communicate that vision. At the exhibit, several projects highlighted a range of risk factors associated with dementia, including social isolation, physical inactivity, racism, and COVID-19.

Through “Every Body Moves,” Polish-American dancer and Atlantic Fellow Magda Kaczmarska, led a rousing dance performance featuring over fifteen local older adults who incorporated storytelling in their movements.

“Through dance, these amazing people build social connections and learn about how these activities support their brain health,” said Kaczmarksa.

The exhibit also included “Photographing My Neighborhood” by Peruvian photographer and Atlantic Fellow Alex Kornhuber, featuring photographs by older adults throughout the diverse neighborhoods of San Francisco, including the Mission, Bayview Hunters Point and Balboa Park. In a series of workshops preceding the exhibit, Kornhuber guided the participants to practice photography.

“Radical Imagination,” designed by African-American neuropsychologist and Atlantic Fellow Tanisha Hill-Jarrett, centers Black women as the central story writers of their past lives and possible futures. It included “The Other Side of Time,” a photo and interview series conceptualized and designed by Hill-Jarrett and photographed by Austin James.

“Personal Pandemics” is a large-scale art project led by Creative Minds Artistic Director and Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity Gloria Aguirre. Using Body Mapping— in which drawing, painting, or other artistic techniques visually represent the embodiment of lived experiences—it provides a space for community members to engage directly with clinicians about health concerns, explore unique and shared histories, and tell stories of the COVID-19 pandemic in San Francisco, promoting brain health through openness, healing and creativity.

“The accomplishments of Creative Minds participants motivate us to continue growing our multidisciplinary arts in health approach,” said Aguirre. “By co-creating with our community members, we are reducing stigma around dementia and opening important conversations about cognitive health.”

In 2022, Personal Pandemics was accepted into the San Francisco COVID-19 Community Time Capsule and received independent funding from the San Francisco Arts Commission to create a book of the work that will be added to the archives at the Main Library. 

Creative Minds Exhibit 2023_Radical Imagination Viewer

Above: Audience members view the "Radical Imagination" showcase during the “Community + Art + the Brain” exhibit. Photo by Elisabeth Fall.

Bringing Together a Diverse Group to Support Brain Health

Established in 2020, Creative Minds partners with community centers and clinics throughout San Francisco to incorporate brain health education and offer creative experiences informed by the cultures and languages of local  community members. Clinicians and international professionals in the arts and community practice engage older adults in Spanish, English and Chinese to support healthy aging and improve access to expert clinical care and research opportunities. 

“Art making is a powerful way of addressing social isolation and loneliness while creating a renewed sense of community in neighborhoods”, said Serggio Lanata, Program Director and GBHI faculty member.

After overcoming initial challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Creative Minds has embraced virtual—and in-person—programming to deliver brain health education and creative workshops, providing opportunities to connect that otherwise may not have been possible. Atlantic Fellows Magda Kaczmarska and Alex Kornhuber, based in New York and Peru respectively, both led project activities over Zoom for months in advance of in-person workshops and rehearsals in preparation for the exhibition in San Francisco. 

This unique collaboration between the UCSF Memory and Aging Center Community Outreach Program, community partners, and Atlantic Fellows for Equity in Brain at GBHI engages older adults living in neighborhoods that are underserved and underrepresented. Creative Minds is funded by the City of San Francisco's Department of Disability and Aging Services, the UCSF Memory and Aging Center, and GBHI.

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Large group at the Creative Minds Exhibit 2023

Above: Collaborators from the Creative Minds team gather at the “Community + Art + the Brain” exhibit. Photo by Elisabeth Fall.