Teaching Business Through an Artful Lens

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Tuesday, November 15, 2022
By Giselle Weybrecht
Photo by iStock/valentinrussanov
How business schools are using the arts to teach business—and why you and your school should, too.
  • More business schools are integrating the arts and humanities into their courses to help students hone their creative, observational, and problem-solving skills.
  • Business schools are integrating painting, sculpture, music, theater, and other forms of art into dedicated courses, exploring these topics in extracurricular activities, and even embedding art and creativity in their overall missions.
  • To effectively teach business through the lens of the arts and humanities, faculty should create classroom environments where creativity is valued and encouraged, be willing to learn alongside their students, and allow students time for reflection.

Almost every list that outlines skills that employees will need in the future includes creative thinking. In fact, a combination of “creativity, originality, and initiative” is among the top-10 skills of 2025, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report. In response to this trend, business schools are including creativity in everything from courses to programs to vision statements. Standalone courses on creativity have become commonplace, especially when they’re linked to entrepreneurship.

But creative thinking isn’t just about coming up with new ideas. It is also about being able to see the world through different lenses. It is about learning to observe and, through those observations, to rethink what is possible. For humanity to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we will need to apply creative thinking across all disciplines and sectors.

Many business schools offer traditional courses in creativity that incorporate case studies, journal readings, and traditional lectures. However, business schools rarely use artistic disciplines (such as the visual arts, music, or theater) as tools to help students explore and develop not only their creativity, but also other skills such as analytical thinking, complex problem solving, critical thinking, and even resilience.

Of course, you might be thinking that the arts have no place in a business curriculum. If so, consider how topics from the arts and humanities have been used in medical schools. In 1998, for example, a faculty member at the Yale School of Medicine realized that when the school’s medical residents met with patients, the observations they described in their notes were not sufficiently thorough. As a result, they were making diagnoses based on incomplete information.

In response, the school added a required first-year course on art appreciation. In the course, medical students are given 15 minutes to observe an assigned painting and gather as much detail as possible. The aim is to help them hone their observational skills and avoid jumping to conclusions too quickly. The students also use what they observe as a starting point for discussions on a range of issues, from bias to inequality.

And the approach worked. After Yale began offering the course, the number of misdiagnoses made by its residents decreased.

In other words, the study of art can help students enhance their critical thinking and powers of discernment. That’s the point that Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, director of the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, makes in a podcast with Tima Bansal from the Network for Business Sustainability. “Art can help us understand the big, holistic picture of issues in society,” Thun-Hohenstein says. “It can help to captivate where science can’t and to illustrate the interconnections that are otherwise hard to see.”

Study of the arts doesn’t require one to become “‘artistic,” and it isn’t at odds with business. Far from it. Faculty at a growing number of business schools and universities are using the arts successfully to teach business topics, including those related to sustainable business practices. Below are a few examples.

Art as Pedagogical Tool

At Escola de Administração de Empresas de São Paulo da Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV-EAESP) in Brazil, art is a core part of a required sustainability course. Fernanda Carreira, head of the Integrated Education Programme at FGV-EAESP’s Centre for Sustainability Studies, encourages students to use art as a lens through which they can have a different view of themselves, the world, and ways to bring about change. For one in-class activity, students create their own paintings and sculptures to express themselves and to spark discussions about sustainability issues. In another, students organize an art exhibition that focuses on Brazilian agriculture and climate change.

At the Goa Institute of Management in India, associate professor Padhmanabhan Vijayaraghavan uses theater as a pedagogical tool in his organizational behavior course. Vijayaraghavan asks students to prepare skits based on experiences they have had in the workplace. These performances enable students not only to express themselves, but also to observe and listen to other students’ experiences.  

Art as Inspiration

At some business schools, the curriculum includes full courses dedicated to the arts. The IEDC Bled School of Management, for example, requires all business students to take the course Art and Leadership. Through discussions with prominent artists, students discover that the arts can be a source of reflection, inspiration, and motivation for management. The course aims to encourage business leaders to meet challenges in new ways.

Another example is an online course offered by Grenoble Ecole de Management in France called Art and Management. This course, in which students interact with artists and use the arts to develop experiential marketing projects, aims to “help students step outside the box, develop their curiosity, and awaken their creativity.”

For one in-class activity, students create their own paintings and sculptures to express themselves and to spark discussions about sustainability issues.

While the above two schools offer courses that explore art more broadly, some take a more specific approach. That’s the case at the Goa Institute of Management, where Divya Singhal, a professor of general management, has been running a course focusing on music and management since 2009.

Students in her course talk about the power of music in various fields of management (from marketing to leadership). These discussions sensitize students to the role music has played in social movements. By integrating music into management education, Singhal seeks to break down functional silos and widen students’ perspectives.

Art as Basis for Interdisciplinary Understanding

The Creative Sustainability Programme at Aalto University in Espoo, Finland, brings students from various fields together to work on multidisciplinary teams that create novel sustainable solutions for human, urban, industrial, and business environments. This two-year full-time program is a collaboration among several schools at the university, including those dedicated to business, design, architecture, real estate, the built environment, and water management.

The University of New South Wales in Sydney offers a Bachelor of Arts and Business, a unique interdisciplinary collaboration between UNSW Business School and the university’s departments of arts, design, and architecture. The aim, among others, is to “teach the tools and methods of understanding associated with Humanities, Social Science and Business disciplines, and to encourage students to perceive the relationships between these disciplines.”

Art as School Mission

At the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE), the Art Initiative embeds the arts into the academic environment and makes art central to the school’s overall mission. The school accomplishes this via exhibitions, workshops, talks, and book clubs, and even a classroom filled with contemporary art. As the school mentions in its sustainability report, “aesthetics opens pathways to ethics and socially responsible decisions. Among other things, the Art Initiative manifests the value of cultural diversity and underscores culture’s necessary contribution to sustainable development.”

For example, in 2020, artists Bigert & Bergström displayed a sculpture titled CO2Lock-In at SSE’s doorstep for all students to view daily. The installation included a series of iron balls each weighing 300 kilograms (about 662 pounds), which represents the carbon emissions the average Swede generates over 10 days. The school also has a Center for Arts, Business & Culture that seeks “to act as a bridge between different spheres and forms of knowledge, in order to better understand and contribute to society through relevant research.”

Art on Campus

The Ivey Business School in London, Ontario, Canada, has an extensive collection of Canadian art displayed throughout the buildings. The reason behind the collection, says Richard W. Ivey in an interview on the school’s website, is that “art can inspire creativity, curiosity and perhaps awe in those people that take the time to contemplate and enjoy it. Business thrives on curiosity and creativity so it’s important for the opportunity to be provided.”

At Özyeğin University in Istanbul, students put together an exhibition of artworks from the school’s collection, in which the works selected represented different SDGs. The purpose of the exhibition was to encourage the community to think about the goals in different ways. Throughout the exhibition, featured artists gave talks accompanied by specialists in the relevant sustainable development goals. Students also had the opportunity to produce their own art inspired by the SDGs.  

Art as Basis for Collaboration

Students at the University of Navarra in Spain have organized Lead Creative (website in Spanish) in collaboration with the Museum of the University of Navarra. The Lead Creative platform brings together professionals, experts, faculty, and students to promote creative leadership and innovation.

Other universities are entering into similar collaborations. For example, in 2020, IE University in Madrid and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, signed a collaboration to carry out a range of activities that highlight the strategic value of art as a vector for societal development. This collaboration involves both current students and alumni.

Art as Extracurricular Activity

Denise Baden, professor of sustainable business at Southampton Business School in the United Kingdom, uses storytelling to help students engage in sustainable solutions. She set up Green Stories, a series of writing competitions that encourage experts, professional writers, and students to use short stories to imagine how sustainable business models can work in practice.

At IAE Lyon School of Management in France, students can attend free workshops delivered by professional artists, each designed to help students develop their creativity. Recent examples include one in which a photographer invited students to express their emotions through photography, and another in which a designer encouraged students to see and explore their city in different ways.

How to Get StARTed

How can other educators integrate the arts into their own programs and courses? All of the faculty featured above offer the same advice: “Just do it.” They also share the following recommendations:

Create the right environment. Professors should design environments where creativity is valued and encouraged, as well as provide safe spaces for students to test ideas.

Learn alongside students. Carreira of FGV-EAESP recommends that faculty develop “horizontal relationships” with students, in which they participate equally with students in classroom activities. “If I bring an activity with dance into the classroom, I also dance,” she says.

In this way, faculty show students that “our teaching staff are also learners, and we are there in the classroom learning and being creative, testing new things, and sometimes failing,” says Carreira. “And when we fail, we acknowledge our failure. We show the students that this is normal, and that from failure we can get new ideas.”

Faculty who integrate art into their teaching should participate equally with students, says Fernanda Carreira of FGV-EAESP. “If I bring an activity with dance into the classroom, I also dance.”

Bring different types of art into the classroom. Music, painting, film, sculpture, and other art forms can all be valuable, says Carreira, because “each person accesses their creativity through different stimuli.”

Build in time for reflection. Faculty should make sure there is time to debrief at the end of each activity, says Carreira, “not just to allow time for reflecting about the exercise and the sustainability issues being addressed through art, but also to let the students’ reflections be shared.” 

Think outside the classroom. Faculty can bring artists to class to work with students, but if possible, they also can take the students to meet the artists in the community.

Start with one small discussion in one session. For example, says Singhal of the Goa Institute of Management, “if you want to discuss modern slavery, ask your students to capture photos that speak [to or] explain modern slavery and organize a photo exhibition that shows these different perspectives.”

These faculty view art as a common language with the power to bring people together to explore different questions from different perspectives. As Carreira puts it, “When we talk about sustainability, we are talking about wicked problems for which we do not yet have answers—at least not ones that will really address these problems at their roots. In this sense, reconnecting with our creative power is an important starting point.”

As students think about how they can achieve societal impact, the arts can give students permission to explore what might be possible, without imposing any constraints. The arts also can help students develop stronger, more meaningful leadership abilities.

For more on how business schools are embedding sustainability, follow Giselle’s List, a weekly curated list of ideas and resources.

Giselle Weybrecht
Author, Advisor, and Speaker, Sustainability and Business
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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