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A Night at the Museum: Using Art to Spark Creative Thinking

A Night at the Museum: Using Art to Spark Creative Thinking

Public discourse in recent years has revolved around the question of creativity: how to foster it, how to harness it, and whether our society suffers a critical lack of it. Corporate consultants have also been expanding their repertoire to offer workshops that promise the secret to unleashing creativity.

While the art museum may seem an unconventional venue for business professionals, consider that the works on display in an art museum are the result of countless individual lives dedicated to creation and expression.

It is this — and the kind of creative thinking that artworks embody and help viewers to develop — that has led companies such as Pepsi, DDB, and The University of Chicago Hospitals to take part in museum-based workshops co-led by art educators and corporate trainers.

The approach has even been adopted in business education: at the Harvard Business School, for example, discussions around works of art (donated to the school by alumnus Gerald W. Schwartz) have been incorporated into a course on moral leadership—because through art, Schwartz says, “sometimes you think about a problem differently.”

So how, exactly, do works of art promote creative and innovative thinking? Experts emphasize that creativity involves certain thinking behaviors, and it is these that are developed while viewing and discussing art:

  • Reframing problems. Marcel Duchamp’s famously reframed a urinal as art by literally putting it on its side in his Fountain sculpture. Being able to look at a problem from a different perspective is one of the keys to expanding the field of possible solutions, according Tina Seelig, author of inGenius: A Crash on Creativity.
  • Challenging assumptions. Revealing the assumptions that underlie our initial, quick answer is essential to generating new ways of thinking about and seeing a problem, says Seelig. Cindy Sherman, in photographs where she depicts female stereotypes from the silver screen, forces us to confront our assumptions about femininity, sexuality, and gender roles.
  • Discovering unexpected connections. Creative people connect and combine things in surprising ways. Jasper Johns’s Flag combines a recognizable and honored symbol with incongruous materials, and sparks new ideas when we apply the same “What if” question to other domains.
  • Seeking out new experiences and knowledge. Our ability to make connections and think differently hinges on the breadth of our experience and knowledge, upon which creative thinking is based. Confronting challenging works of art and the diversity of others’ perspectives stretches what we know and how we think.
  • Enhancing powers of observation. “Pay attention,” Seelig says, because close observation is essential to knowledge and therefore creativity. We are quick to interpret visual cues, and being asked to ground interpretations of painting with visual evidence forces us to pay closer attention to what we observe.
  • Take risks. Proposing a new idea, approach, or project is challenging for many, but essential in innovation. Gaining practice in a low-stakes setting—in discussions about a puzzling sculpture—facilitates risk-taking in a more important one.

More and more museums are developing programs designed to cultivate creativity. Art-Work, a program of the Art Institute of Chicago offered in partnership with Catalyst Ranch, Chicago’s creative conference center; the Columbus Museum of Art, which has a new Center for Creativity; and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts are just a few museums that have launched programs specifically for the business community. The next time you want to inspire inventive thinking in your team, a workshop at an art museum might be just the solution.

Akira is the Founder & CEO of Cayenne Consulting. He has over 30 years of experience both as an entrepreneur and helping other entrepreneurs succeed. Akira earned his BA in Engineering Sciences from Harvard University. View details.

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