Artist Soozin Hirschmugl paints with two visitors on the lawn of the People's Center Health Services in Minneapolis.
Artist Soozin Hirschmugl (left) paints with visitors on the lawn of the People's Center Health Services in Minneapolis. Courtesy of People's Center Clinics & Services/Photo by Bruce Wilcox

A Minneapolis clinic brought artists to its front lawn to give patients a different first impression of going to the doctor.

A young Native American woman and her partner were on their way to make a doctor’s appointment at a Minneapolis clinic this summer when they came upon a pop-up trailer on the front lawn.

The woman stopped for a while to paint a dream catcher with artist Soozin Hirschmugl.

“She made art for a long time,” said Hirschmugl. “Before she left, her partner told me how nice it was for them to sit with me, because people don’t often take time with others.”

Hirschmugl and 16 other artists were hired by the People’s Center Health Services to spend several hours on its lawn every Thursday afternoon for four months, in a pilot program to engage with the community about health in a less disease-focused and more organic way.  

The People’s Center is one of a number of health clinics experimenting with programs that conceive of “health” more broadly. Part of the People’s Center’s mission is to engage its community in health education and outreach. But it has found that more traditional mechanisms like classes and workshops had not been well attended.

“If you invite people to a class on health, no one will show up because it’s boring,” said CEO of People’s Center Clinics & Services Sahra Noor. Noor had previously used the pop-ups at health fairs around the city for outreach purposes, but never at the clinic itself.

The clinic, which has been located since 1970 in south Minneapolis, an area historically populated by artists, activists, and immigrants, provides medical, dental, and mental health care regardless of whether patients can pay. Noor said that while the clinic already serves the uninsured and underinsured, such as Somali immigrants, the pop-ups were a way of drawing them in even more. The hope was that it also gave patients more positive associations with visiting the doctor.

The People’s Center asked the artists to engage with those who sought treatment at the clinic, as well as staff and passersby. In addition to Hirschmugl’s trailer, pop-ups included a ping pong table, letterpress station, and tented spa offering facials and tea.

Artist Peter Haakon Thompson brought a mobile shop where people could create personalized signs. (Courtesy of  People’s Center Clinics & Services/Photo by Uche Iroegbu)

The pop-up initiative is not unlike what hospitals and clinics have begun to offer across the country. Tammy Shella, who heads the art therapy program at the Cleveland Clinic, said that though the center’s activities aren’t art therapy per se—that would involve a licensed therapist working with a patient to relieve stress and pain—they are similar to her program’s less structured offerings. These include two-hour art projects, such as mask making, that people in the hospital—patients or visitors—can drop in on or stay for the entire time.

”You’re doing the art sitting next to people and you start talking to each other,” Shella said. “It creates community and is therapeutic in the sense that the hospital becomes less sterile—it gives it a sense of beauty and helps people feel more at peace and connected to others.”

Shella said that such activities have emerged from health care providers’ desire to give patients a positive experience. This means seeing them as “whole people,” not just a specific problem or organ that needs fixing. “It’s the recognition that people also have psycho-social needs,” said Shella. “The activities that the People’s Center offered are therapeutic in that way.”

Some of the pop-ups at the People’s Center were designed to elicit responses from participants about their well-being. Hirschmugl, for instance, gave visitors the option to answer a prompt—“I’m looking out for my health by…”—on a dry erase board or postcard. At first, most people participated only if they had children with them, as the kids’ curiosity prompted their parents to engage. But Hirschmugl said she got others to participate by welcoming them individually and telling them about the items in the trailer. “Most people are happy to engage when invited in,” she said.

While Hirschmugl said many of the messages were about eating well and exercising, others mentioned fasting and meditating, as the month of Ramadan coincided with the pop-ups.

Visitors could also simply sit, color, chat, or play a board game with Hirschmugl. Some of the other stations, such as the ping pong table and spa, offered similarly relaxing and entertaining activities with the goal of facilitating interaction and providing moments of reflection, rather than engaging people directly about health.

Artist Ifrah Mansour made short films of participants’ hands. (Courtesy of People’s Center Clinics & Services/Photo by Bruce Silcox)

Hirschmugl said she and the other artists also served as a gateway to the clinic, and made patients waiting for an appointment feel more at ease during what would normally be a tense time. “You’re in that in-between period with time on your hands, and you’re waiting for something that you may not want,” she said. “We hopefully made going to the doctor less frightening.”

It’s hard to quantify the pop-up’s impact. While more than 500 people participated, and an evaluator reported that as many as 30 people would cluster at a popular station at any given time, Noor said it’s not possible to gauge whether the people will now use the center’s services more or if they feel differently about the space.

But Noor and others felt the pop-ups were a success based on their observations. Laura Zabel, the executive director of Springboard for the Arts, the organization that facilitated the artists’ involvement, noticed that some participants who had brought a child to an appointment would go home afterward, fetch their other children, and bring them back for the fun.

And Noor said that when she would leave work at 7 p.m.two hours after the clinic closed—kids would still be playing outside, their parents talking to the artists. “The artists needed to leave, but they didn’t, because people were enjoying themselves,” she said. “I had feared we were forcing people to engage, but I realized that people want this.”

This article is part of our project, “The Diagnosis,” which is supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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