Why the Arts are Valuable in Business School Curriculum
When you think of MBA coursework, you think of core classes in marketing, finance, economics, operations, decision sciences, strategy, and so on. You don’t think of color theory, collaborative drawing, or watercolors. But at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, we do. Unlike traditional business schools that collect and present art, we make it.
In addition to core curriculum that encompasses fundamental business areas, for the past two years Kellogg has offered students an opportunity to participate in artist-led, hands-on workshops that focus on a variety of arts-themed topics. Topics have ranged from Japanese book binding to collaborative drawing, and origami to watercolor basics. These workshops are co-curricular and completely voluntary, so students do not receive credit for participation and carve out time from their already-busy schedules to participate. But nearly every workshop has been sold out and we’ve had waitlists with up to 40 people for each session.
One of our most memorable art workshops featured collaborative drawing. Students were divided into two groups, and each was assigned to a large piece of paper taped to the wall. One student from each group would draw one line or mark in a single stroke on the group’s paper, and then the next person would pick up where the last person left off and do the same. This rotation continued until we cycled through each group a few times. What began as a single line or squiggle mark ended up as a complex narrative drawing. Each new mark worked toward the group’s goal. As lines were added, shapes became more visible, and the groups started to create a unified story. The lesson of collaboration and working toward a common goal was not lost on the students; it was a highly visual exercise in teamwork.
I attribute the success and popularity of these workshops to filling a much-needed void in MBA curriculum—one that stimulates the right brain, which supports creativity and intuition. Exercising these functions encourages important skills for aspiring business leaders. Interactions with art develop observation, collaboration, communication, narrative building, and critical thinking skills. They also emphasize empathic thinking, creative ideation, implicit bias awareness, and recognizing the nature of objectivity/neutrality.
Leaders are made and trained, not necessarily born. Exercising empathy, knowing how to communicate effectively, and having the ability to think creatively through complex issues all help leaders manage effectively. Recognizing this, many professors have long incorporated the arts into classroom learning. For example, Brooke Vuckovic, a Clinical Professor of Leadership at Kellogg, uses the arts in a variety of forms in her MBA class “Moral Complexity in Leadership.” In this course, students use film, short stories, theater, and literature to explore classic moral issues that leaders will face and analyze how individuals make choices congruent with their values. She also uses visual art, such as paintings, to spark dialogue among students to explore different perspectives and encourage deep listening.
Student feedback demonstrates that arts learning at Kellogg has been well received. One student noted that these workshops “offered a rare moment for self-reflection” amidst the busyness of student life. Others have voiced that having time to make and experiment in the arts has sharpened their creative and ideation skills.
Unfortunately, the art workshops came to a halt as the university went virtual with COVID, but we hope to relaunch them this academic year in virtual form and then eventually in person because now, more than ever, we need invest in leaders who can tackle trying issues with an empathetic and creative touch.