2020 in Review: How the Arts Impacted Our Health

As the world struggled to contain the coronavirus, the arts could not be stopped.

A cascade of creativity outbreaks emerged after pandemic restrictions like stay-at-home orders took effect. Italians sang in grief and solidarity from their balconies during lockdown. People turned to the therapeutic arts of baking, gardening and needlework, resulting in widely reported shortages of flour, seeds and thread. 

Healthcare workers used music to comfort critical patients, celebrate those who recovered and take a break from serving on the frontlines. And with the help of artists worldwide, people found new and creative ways to express themselves together at a distance.

Four months into the pandemic, the data began to paint a dispiriting picture. Our mental health had taken a severe hit, for some more than others. But it appeared that the embrace of the arts, both individually and collectively, was a key protective factor—a way to cope and stay resilient in the face of tremendous strain and anxiety.

Was this unconscious return to the arts highlighting something essential to our collective wellbeing?

We will be unpacking that question for years to come, but there is no denying that the pandemic has forced us to slow down, take stock and invest in things that make us feel whole, human and connected.

Read on to see how the arts impacted our health and wellbeing in a year for the history books, 2020.

Choir Performance in Europe Leads to Outbreak

In early March, a 130-person choir performs at the Concertgebouw in the Netherlands. Over a hundred people fall sick and four people tied to the choir die.

TikTok Awash With Hand-Washing Dance Videos


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Quang Đăng (@im.quangdang)

A Vietnamese dancer choreographs a viral dance to demonstrate hand-washing techniques recommended by the World Health Organization. Posted as a social media challenge, the dance inspires a flood of hand-washing videos from around the world.

Choir Rehearsal In U.S. Ends in Outbreak

In Washington state, the Skagit Valley Chorale rehearses indoors in compliance with state guidelines. Despite no reported cases of COVID-19 in town, 53 choir members eventually fall ill and two die from complications.

Italians Sing from Their Balconies During Lockdown
Instagram Talent Shows Take Off
View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Jennifer Garner (@jennifer.garner)

As schools begin to shutter in the U.S., celebrities like Jennifer Garner and Laura Benanti anticipate the letdown amongst students preparing for their end-of-year performances. Channeling a little "Show Must Go On" energy, they hold online talent shows.

Musicians Stream Free Living Room Concerts

Frontman Chris Martin of Coldplay kicks off the trend with an Instagram Live set, and John Legend follows suit the next day. One month later, Lady Gaga hosts the One World: Together at Home Concert, "connecting and inspiring Global Citizens to stand together to beat coronavirus."

How Listening to Music May Ease Traumatic Stress

Storytime with Celebs Supports Kids in Need
View this post on Instagram

A post shared by #SAVEWITHSTORIES (@savewithstories)

It started with a #SAVEWITHSTORIES reading from Jennifer Garner and Amy Adams and continued with bookish campaigns from stars including Daniel Radcliffe, Dolly Parton, Taiki Watiti and LeVar Burton.

How Storytime Builds Resilient, Young Minds

FAME's Debbie Allen Offers Free Dance Class to Fight the Lockdown Blues
View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Debbie Allen Dance Academy (@officialdadance)

The actor, dancer and choreographer urges her followers to "get those bodies moving" with a class on Instagram Live.

Just Dance: A Prescription for Mental Wellbeing
Let’s Get Physical: Dancing to Support Family Fitness at Home

COVID Art Museum Appears on Instagram

While most museums close their doors to visitors, a new global gallery arrives online. The COVID Art Museum opens on Instagram as a place to document and preserve artists' responses to the pandemic.

The Animal Crossing Craze Takes Hold

Stuck at home with time on their hands, people take up their video game controllers and enter a whimsical world of critters in Animal Crossing. The feel-good game provides moments of escape and connection.

How Video Games Can Be a Healthy Escape During Lockdown

Virtual Choirs Zoom Ahead with Performances

In-person choir performances are banned as superspreader events, but singing for solace, comfort and connection continues. Virtual choirs, like The Sofa Singers, take to YouTube to perform, sparking joy without spreading the coronavirus.

Virtual Choirs and Wellbeing

Flour Shortage Reported After Therapeutic Baking Binge

To keep us from going bananas, banana bread becomes all the rage.

Why Is Everyone Baking and Gardening Under Lockdown?

Some Good News with John Krasinski Premieres

As public health experts urge limiting news consumption to protect our mental health, a new kind of program debuts.

SGN's 8-week run offers hope and heartwarming antidotes to the news cycle, complete with a virtual prom and graduation and crowd-pleasing reunions of casts from The Office (U.S. edition) and Hamilton.

UN Issues a Call to Creatives

To help stop the spread of COVID-19, the United Nations posts a call to creatives: Help us translate critical public health messages into artwork that will engage and inform people around the world. 

In the U.S., design lab Amplifer issues a similar call for artwork to support public health and safety and uplift mental health and wellbeing.

The Globe Theatre Streams Shakespeare

The curtains drop on the planned spring season at the world-famous theater. To provide community and connection, The Globe shifts to digital offerings, including six productions for free on video-on-demand.

U.S. Youth Poet Laureate Performs to Lift Nation's Spirits

In a performance on "CBS This Morning," Amanda Gorman shares words of hope with her fellow Americans. Read her poem here.

How Students Can Use Expressive Writing to Navigate Uncertainty

Memorial Quilt Honors Coronavirus Victims

Started as a school project by a California teen, each square of the quilt commemorates the life of a person who died of COVID-19.

Can the Arts Help Us Heal Our Grief?

Bedside Concerts Provide a Moment's Peace to Isolated COVID-19 Patients

In the throes of a deadly outbreak, New York City physicians organize remote concerts for patients battling COVID-19.

How Art Brings Humanity and Healing to the Patient’s Bedside

Arts are a Lifeline for Lonely Seniors

New reports emerge about an uptick in suicides amongst isolated and vulnerable seniors. While nursing home and assisted living residents are cut off from visitors, communities rally to boost seniors' spirits through pen pal programs and joke hotlines. Some care workers dream up a fun project recreating iconic album covers with their residents. And arts service organizations get crafty, beefing up their virtual offerings.

Art Activities Can Be a Lifeline for Lonely Seniors

"The Way I See It" Showcases the Creativity of UK Kids in Lockdown

Google Arts & Culture teams up with Arts Council England to display art made by young people to process the pandemic. While children are cut off from school arts supplies, the Arts Council, working with its partners, manages to distribute over 36,840 Let's Create Packs to children across England.

Healing Arts Initiatives Emerge to Support a Struggling Frontline

In New York City, the "Music for The Soul" series launches, with big-name acts treating frontline healthcare workers to private concerts.

Meanwhile as clinicians continue to report burnout and fatigue, Theater of War for Frontline Medical Providers presents selected works to help struggling workers name and share their feelings.

The National Organization for the Arts in Health (NOAH) launches the ARC project, offering free expressive arts programming to help healthcare workers combat anxiety and burnout.

PTSD and the Arts: A Path to Healing Our Healers
Can a Jam Session Help Healthcare Workers Battle Burnout?

Rural Shuffle Dance Goes Viral

A Chinese couple decides to share the daily dance routine that helped the husband recover from depression after an severe car accident. The video quickly goes viral on TikTok.

Just Dance: A Prescription for Mental Wellbeing

An Artistic Outpouring in the Streets After the Killing of George Floyd

When a video of George Floyd's killing by police spreads online, it lays bare another public health threat, systemic racism and injustice in the U.S. People immediately gravitate to the arts to express themselves in grief and protest. Street murals and portraits honoring Floyd and Breonna Taylor appear, protesters dance at the base of Confederate statues and a young black boy sings a heart-wrenching plea, "I Just Wanna Live".

Arts for Health Equity and Social Justice

UK Study Indicates Arts Engagement May Protect Mental Health During Lockdown

The COVID-19 Social Study tracked weekly arts participation and mental health of 72,000 UK adults since March. Initial data suggest that people spending 30 minutes or more on creative activities reported lower rates of depression and anxiety and greater life satisfaction. In partnership with the University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine and Americans for the Arts, the study extends to the U.S.

Hamilton: The American Musical Streams on Disney Plus

Broadway remains shut down, but a recorded version of the smash hit musical, Hamilton, makes a house call, streaming on Disney+.

WindowSwap Lets People Change Their Scenery Safely


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by window-swap.com (@windowswap)

As lockdowns ease over the summer, work-from-home policies and travel restrictions remain in place for many. Some settle for a virtual change of scenery using WindowSwap, which allows visitors to peer at views around the world.

Feeling Frazzled Working from Home? These Design Tweaks Can Help Your Brain

Report Highlights Arts Activities as Critical to Pandemic Resilience

From the Collective Resilience Report: "UCL’s study of 70K adults’ mental health during the pandemic found that 22% engaged more with arts during the lockdown period than usual, and engaging in creative activities—art, gardening, hobbies, reading fiction—was the single most helpful activity for people’s wellbeing."

Dance for PD Reaches More Than Ever During the Pandemic

Dance for PD is a dance instruction program that improves quality of life for people living with Parkison's Disease, backed by 38 peer-reviewed studies. The pandemic put a halt to in-person classes in NYC. As programming shifted online, participation leapt from 650 regulars in the city to 1,300 students around the world.

Families Mark Quarantime Together Through Porch Portraits
Boston Healthcare Workers Celebrate Arrival of COVID-19 Vaccine

Sound on for this one!

Send IAM Lab Your Questions and Stories

Are you, your loved ones or colleagues dealing with specific issues and want to learn more about art-based solutions? Are you already using the arts to help you cope? Please share your thoughts, ideas and concerns with us at [email protected].

"This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal."
Toni Morrison