Can Public Art Change a Community? An Exploration of Art as Social Innovation

Friday March 24th, 2017

Guest blog post by Linda Naiman, Vancouver Biennale Board of Directors 


We tend to think of visual art as a form of decoration, but it is so much more. If an art experience has ever altered your mood or changed your mind, then you have experienced the power of art.

The philosopher Alain de Botton has stated, “Art is propaganda for what really matters: the way we live rather the way we think we should live.” This is a fascinating lens through which to examine public art in Vancouver.

If we think about art as propaganda for what really matters, then I would argue it also speaks to the way we could live. For example, public art plays an important role in placemaking, social innovation, and building vibrant neighbourhoods, by creating opportunities for human connection, happiness, and wellbeing. Art is part of the cure for loneliness, one of the biggest social problems in our city.


Art is part of the soul of our community.


Dennis Oppenheim. ENGAGEMENT. Sunset Beach Park in Vancouver. 2014 - 2016 exhibition

Engagement by Dennis Oppenheim


The Knight Foundation, in surveys of 43 American cities over the past few years, asked the question “What makes people love where they live and why does it matter?” They discovered that people form a strong emotional attachment to their community when it has social offerings (opportunities for cultural interaction and citizen caring), openness (how welcoming the community is to different people), and aesthetics (art, physical beauty, and green spaces).


Why does attachment to community matter? 

Cosimo Cavallaro. LOVE YOUR BEAN. Charleson Park in Vancouver. 2014 - 2016 exhibition. Photo by Chris

Love Your Bean by Cosimo Cavallaro


“Love of place is [a] great equalizer and mobilizer. In all my years of doing community practice, I’ve never seen a more powerful model for moving communities forward and enabling places to optimize who they are instead of trying to be someplace else. It is this message that frees people to love their place, and hearing that their love of place is a powerful resource is not something many residents (or their leaders) have properly recognized and leveraged.” — Dr. Katherine Loflin, Lead Consultant on the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community study.

The findings also showed that cities with the highest levels of attachment had the highest rate of GDP growth. From a corporate perspective, both the art and the culture of a city help attract and keep talent.


The Vancouver Biennale as a social innovator

The Vancouver Biennale through its Open Air Museum and BIG IDEAS educational program has certainly been a catalyst for creating emotional connections to and within our community. Since this not-for-profit arts organization arrived on the scene over ten years ago, we have been treated to installations by world-class artists and emerging artists.

Without a doubt the Vancouver Biennale’s mandate — to use art as a catalyst for learning, dialogue, community engagement, and social action — continues to be realized through a multitude of public-art installations that may be accessed freely, 24/7, in sunshine, rain, or snow.

Some artworks are so popular they have shaped the identity of our city.  Yue Minjun’s A-maze-ing Laughter, one of the most beloved public-art installations in Vancouver, continues to inspire endless playful interactions.  Locals and tourists have also become equally enamoured with OSGEMEOS’s Giants mural on Granville Island. Ai Weiwei’s F Grass speaks to human rights, and Jonathan Borofsky’s Human Structures Vancouver speaks to issues of our humanity in a digital world.


Yue Minjun. A-MAZE-ING LAUGHTER. Morton Park at English Bay in Vancouver. originally installed for 2009 - 2011 Vancouver Biennale. jpg

A-maze-ing Laughter by Yue Minjun


OSGEMEOS. GIANTS. Open House 2016 at Ocean Concrete worksite on Granville Island. Ammar Mahimwalla and Barrie Mowatt

Giants by OSGEMEOS


Dennis Oppenheim’s Device to Root out Evil provoked significant dialogue and community engagement during the 2005 – 2007 exhibition.  Many Vancouverites are still emotionally attached to this artwork and ask regularly, via social-media platforms, for its return to our city.


Dennis Oppenheim. DEVICE TO TO ROOT OUT EVIL. 2005 - 2007 Biennale. Harbour Green Park in Vancouver

Device to Root out Evil by Dennis Oppenheim


Engaging with art

For me, art is an invitation to have a conversation. Through dialogue we co-create meaning with the artist. I encourage you to initiate art-related conversations with your friends and neighbours and to explore the Biennale artworks via mobile art tours (both in your own neighbourhood and in other cities) to understand the artists’ intentions and the context of their works. Here are a few questions that may spark further dialogue:

  • Is art “propaganda for what really matters”?
  • What aspect of this artwork resonates with you?
  • How does this art installation make you feel?
  • Do you think that art in general can be a catalyst for social action?

Multiple points of view may arise that may very well surprise you and ultimately enrich your perspective.

If you are moved by the aspirations of the Vancouver Biennale and its ongoing contributions to placemaking, urbanism, and social innovation in Metro Vancouver communities, consider making a donation or becoming a member.

In conclusion, I believe that public art most certainly can change a community.  The Vancouver Biennale is already in preparation mode for the next exhibition.  Be prepared to see more change-making, place-making art that facilitates social innovation!

Like what you see?