Public art can help ignite societal conversations
Creativity Creative Thinking

How Public Art Can Help Initiate Difficult but Important Societal Conversations

6 Minute Read

Did you know that every 66 seconds, someone in the US develops Alzheimer’s disease? There are 5.2 million people living with the disease today, but that’s expected to triple to 13.8 million by 2050.

Alzheimer’s is one of the biggest health concerns facing us today, but it’s also one of the hardest to talk about. Brain health is both incredibly complex and profoundly devastating for those who suffer with, care for, and know people who have been affected by diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

For marketers and communication professionals whose job it is to build campaigns that increase awareness and boost funding, communicating about such difficult topics is particularly challenging. Marketers everywhere can take a tip from the creative strategies in visual storytelling used to start conversations about brain health.

The Brain Project

What Is the Brain Project?

One visual storytelling initiative that’s gained widespread attention this summer is The Brain Project, recently launched in Toronto. The project is a city-wide art installation in support of brain health awareness. It consists of 100 sculptures created by a diverse group of artists, designers, and celebrities at 50 different locations around the city. The goal of the project is to encourage public conversation around brain health and increase awareness of the care and research going into Alzheimer’s and age-related dementia at Baycrest Health Sciences, a world leader in this avenue of research.

Garry Foster, President and CEO of the Baycrest Foundation, says that “many people living with brain health concerns still suffer in silence,” but that needn’t be the case. Given the overwhelming numbers of people who have and will develop brain health concerns, it seems we ought to rescue the brain from the realms of taboo conversations and make it OK to talk about these difficult topics again. “I speak with families every day that tell me about the challenges and joys of their personal brain health journeys and those of their loved ones,” says Foster. The Brain Project is an attempt to broaden the conversation that is already happening behind closed doors for so many people. Foster explains: “To shift the tides on these rising challenges, people of all ages need to talk openly and think about brain health.”

So how do you reach vast numbers of people of all ages in a way that’s accessible and engaging? You launch a public art initiative.

“One of the best parts of The Brain Project is that it sparks conversations about these topics in the places Torontonians and thousands of tourists visit every day around Toronto,” says Foster. You can find these giant brain sculptures at Union Station, Toronto’s main railway hub, Nathan Phillips Square right outside city hall, and dotted all over some of the most heavily-trafficked areas of the city: malls, parks, historical sites, art galleries, office buildings, and public gathering places.

Why Public Art?

“Creativity and thinking outside the box has brought the topic of brain health to new communities, new generations, and has helped to reduce the stigma of Alzheimer’s and age-related dementia for many Canadians,” says Foster. The Brain Project literally brings the conversation about brain health out of the confines of doctor’s offices and research labs and into everyday life, to the places we all live, work and play. When the public starts having open conversations about brain health it leads to real-world solutions to age-old challenges, explains Foster.

The creativity of the project has attracted some serious attention, from the Mayor of Toronto John Tory to actors Sarah Rafferty and Vinay Virmani weighing in on the conversation. “The success and far-reaching impact of The Brain Project is a clear indication that creative storytelling is a smart investment for the Baycrest Foundation,” says Foster.

Both the public and visual nature of the project also make it amenable to sharing online. Foster explains: “One of the most remarkable outcomes of this project has been the response from people online. Using the hashtag #NoBlankBrains, people on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are sharing their photos, comments, and support. It’s been an inspiring and humbling experience to watch the city embrace this important cause.”

Part of the reason the project has been so successful may be due to the individual nature of the visual storytelling medium. Each brain is unique, offering a different perspective and point of discussion for viewers.

Artist Lance Freitag, creating for Hudson Jeans, was inspired by the powerful nature of fear in the mind and our continual process of overcoming it to move toward a future of peace. He believes the strength of the project lies in individuals being able to see a part of themselves in the art. The key is to tell a story that invites the viewer to interpret the piece the way they want and make it their own. Freitag reminds us that the brain is a very personal thing, and we all have a different way of understanding and expressing it.

Compelling Stories Are Deeply Personal yet Universally Significant

The artists of The Brain Project show just how compelling a story can be if it’s told in a way that’s deeply personal but also universally significant.

Michael Bublé and Rob Ubels: “Unforgettable”


The piece “Unforgettable” was inspired by the matriarch of Bublé and Ubels’ family: they lost their grandmother, Yolanda Santaga, to Alzheimer’s. Though the disease destroyed most of her recollections and memories, the music never left her. And just like the songs she loved, she was easy to remember but so hard to forget. The sculpture is entirely hand painted and the lyrics to his song Lost are written in Bublé’s handwriting.

Michael Truelove: “Concussion”


The sculpture “Concussion” is inspired by the use of scans to completely visualize the brain. It is based on a 3D CAD model of a brain derived from a scan. Truelove sliced this data to discover the cross sections, which revealed some interior detail. The slices were then laser cut. The finish is a copper sulfate patina with a clear topcoat. The title of the piece is rooted in Truelove’s own experiences with concussions.

Lisa Santana and Kelvin Goddard: “Time Travel”

Time Travel

As we move through life, certain moments stay with us. These memories develop into a layered patina of past experiences we draw from. For Lisa Santana and Kelvin Goddard, some of their best memories are from traveling to new places and returning to old ones. Each layer of “Time Travel” represents a significant place in their lives. The sculpture is divided into multiple planes, each with its own city map. Each map represents places Santana and Goddard have visited, loved, or left a lasting impression. As individual pieces, each map represents a singular moment. When stacked together to create the whole, they reflect the textured and complex nature of human experience.

The Brain Project highlights how increasingly we need to think outside the box when it comes to creative storytelling in order to overcome barriers to communication that plague some of the most difficult but important societal conversations we need have.

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Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at

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