The Museum of Vancouver gets happy

New exhibit by renowned artist Stefan Sagmeister aims to put a smile on people’s faces

Bubbles, gumballs and sugar cubes illuminate ideas about happiness at the Museum of Vancouver’s new exhibit, Stefan Sagmeister: The Happy Show, which runs April 23 to Sept. 7.

You can hop on a bicycle to light one of Sagmeister’s happiness maxims in four layers of neon, step up to a frame and smile for a sensory surprise and tap a button to receive a sunshine-hued card that gives you an immediate task to complete.

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“Find a reflection of yourself and tell it what you really think,” read the card received by the Courier Thursday afternoon.

Sourcing 26,000 yellow gumballs and ensuring an entrance wall was painted the perfect yolk-toned hue may not have been the most joyful tasks for Gregory Dreicer, director of curatorial and engagement for MOV, but seeing the exhibit he first saw in Chicago travel to Vancouver gives him a flush of satisfaction.

“I’ve been developing exhibitions for at least 20 years and it’s one of the most engaging exhibitions I’ve ever seen,” Dreicer said. “For personal happiness, the key is relationships to other people, family, friends. But also for urban happiness, urban wellbeing, it’s actually the same exact thing, it’s relationships between people, so that’s what got me excited about bringing it.”

The exhibit reflects one man’s personal 10-year exploration of happiness, and that man, Sagmeister, is an award-winning designer whose clients include HBO, the Rolling Stones and the Guggenheim Museum. Sagmeister has delivered several popular TED talks on happiness and design and written multiple books.

Exploring wellness, mindfulness and sex, the exhibit is interactive, playful and colourful in an attempt to connect with visitors’ intellect and emotions with infographics, video projections and interactive installations. Visitors to the museum can preview Sagmeister’s soon-to-be released documentary, The Happy Film, and see Sagmeister’s scribblings stretch down hallways, stairwells and into restrooms.

The Happy Show combines art, design and sociology, dispelling longstanding myths such as folks who live in the countryside are more contented than — urban dwellers.

“It’s a longstanding myth that cities are isolating places,” Dreicer said. “When sociologists have studied it, people actually form all kinds of networks in cities, the things you can’t form in the countryside. Maybe you’re not connected to your neighbours right next to you, but actually you can find groups with whom you can connect to in the city.”

Vancouverites haven’t struck Dreicer as particularly lonely since he relocated from Chicago in July. He reports encountering engaged people in a city with a strong history of social activism. But Dreicer knows The Happy Show follows a 2012 survey by the Vancouver Foundation reporting an overwhelming sense of isolation among residents.

“I know that there’s a lot of change going on in this city, real estate inflation, just all kinds of stuff, so I think all these changes are adding to that sense of disconnection,” Dreicer said.

The Happy Show is also timely because UBC scholar John Helliwell is releasing the third edition of his World Happiness Report Thursday, the day the exhibit opens.

Dreicer, who grew up in Queens, says in New York he didn’t particularly want to know the people who lived within potentially intimate proximity, but he notes the City of Vancouver is keen to see neighbours connect.

“If there’s an earthquake here, knowing your neighbours actually increases your chances of survival,” Dreicer said.

A companion exhibit called #makesmehappy saw 10 Vancouverites, including writer Amber Dawn, singer-songwriter Veda Hille and hip-hop artist Prevail select an object from the museum’s vaults that sparked happy memories, write a blurb about it and issue an immediate call to action, such as call your mother.

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If that doesn’t make visitors feel more engaged, the museum is hosting a series of events, some of which have already sold out, including “happy hours” about happy politics, money and happiness, and bikes and beers.

Dreicer mainly hopes visitors have a good time at the exhibit, which started in Philadelphia and has been mounted in Paris, Los Angeles, Toronto and Chicago.

“If they come away with one new idea about individual happiness or their relationships to others, that’s massive, that would be a massive success,” Dreicer said. “That’s why this [exhibition] is successful, it’s having the impact of making people think about their own lives.”

Stefan Sagmeister: The Happy Show runs at 1100 Chestnut St. For more information, see museumofvancouver.ca.

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