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Occupational therapy students from Rush Medical College participate in a Civic Wellness workshop at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2018 (photo by Aidan Fitzpatrick)

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The Art Institute of Chicago has worked with students and professionals in healthcare for years. When I joined the museum in 2017 I began to lead our work in that area, designing and facilitating workshops for occupational therapists, medical students, and physicians that emphasized observation and communication skills, and concepts such as collaborative problem-solving. 

When the pandemic hit I scrambled to bring resources to my partners in hospitals in hopes that art could function as therapy for frontline providers struggling to keep up with the onslaught of illness. As I noted in an article I wrote for Hyperallergic, at the time those partners were often too overwhelmed to respond to my outreach, so I shifted to thinking long term. How could we lay the groundwork for the collaborations of the future? How could we be prepared for the aftermath of the first wave and beyond?

In summer 2020, around the time I started calling our vocational programs “Civic Wellness,” I was asked to co-facilitate a virtual workshop on art and implicit bias for the Illinois courts. Around one hundred judges and other legal professionals gathered online to look at art and think critically about power and race. This was a follow-up to workshops we had led in the museum before the pandemic. It was becoming more apparent than ever to me that the function of these workshops for healthcare professionals and for legal professionals was largely the same, and that social justice was at the core of both. 

One of the exercises I originally designed for physicians but which I first used with judges explores the concept of objectivity. I ask the participants to look at an emotionally charged artwork and describe it “objectively.” Immediately their language becomes stilted and abstract. They’ll do anything to avoid using emotion words like “fear” or “sadness,” even when the artwork can’t possibly be understood without them. We talk about where this impulse comes from. Who says that emotions can’t be fact? Who decides what is true and what isn’t? These are important questions for anyone, but they are crucial for physicians and judges who are in positions of authority over communities that are exceptionally vulnerable: the ill and those who are seen as offenders within the justice system. 

I am currently collaborating with occupational therapists Evguenia S. Popova, PhD, OTR/L; Hillary Napier-Gondek, OTD, OTR/L; and a handful of talented students at Rush Medical College on a study of the ways in which Civic Wellness workshops impact empathic thinking. The more closely I have come to understand the mechanisms of empathic thinking the more I have come to respect the ways in which the unique experience of art can train individuals and groups to develop care for themselves and other humans. Perhaps most useful for me has been the concept that a guided disorienting experience can lead directly to transformational learning.

Disorientation, of course, is fundamental to the art experience. Many modern and contemporary artists skillfully utilize disorientation as a medium. But even a traditional sculpture or painting can pose questions that are not easily answered, which in itself, especially for science- and logic-focused individuals like doctors and lawyers, can be disorienting. 

I have also come to understand that empathy is a through line in social justice and anti-racist practice. I would argue there is no anti-racist practice without empathy, without the capacity to overcome bias and think deeply about the experience of others, and to treat them with care. This is especially true in moments when difficult decisions have to be made, whether those moments come in courtrooms, emergency rooms, or in staid art museums struggling with legacies of systemic racism. Among other things, empathic thinking means adaptability, a capacity to practice compassionate change. To alter processes that have proven themselves to be harmful, even deadly, given the grave consequences of negligent healthcare and punitive judgement.

In an equitable society the powerful are accountable to the vulnerable (vulnerability is not at all synonymous with weakness). This group I’m naming as powerful includes judges and doctors; it also includes large art institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago. It has rarely been more clear than it was after the onset of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd: All hands must be on deck; choosing the future is the only righteous choice. We are “of Chicago,” therefore we answer to Chicago. All established art museums have to answer to their communities. We must. We have a role to play in the collective struggle for justice and well-being. 

It isn’t always easy to make a clear case for how art can change minds and improve society. Even in the Civic Wellness program there is no obvious answer to the question of why art makes the world a better place. But when I hear a powerful person asking thoughtful questions about truth and compassion — questions made possible through conversation with art — I can see the mechanisms of empathy at play.

Empathy, like love, has a reputation for softness. It too often reads as compromise or pandering. But empathy, like love, can be radical. It asks everyone to give and see more than they may otherwise feel is possible, and has the potential to be a guiding force in the pursuit of an anti-racist tomorrow. This is why connecting legal and medical students and professionals to art is essential. Art bends and distorts perceptions. It demands comfort with ambiguity, and in an ambiguous world, there may be no more valuable skill.

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Sam Ramos

Sam Ramos is a writer and educator at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he is Assistant Director for College and Professional Learning. His practice emphasizes risk and experience, with an emphasis on...

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1 Comment

  1. Dear Sam, I applaud the idea of using art to teach empathy. However, I want to question some of your assumptions based on my personal experience. Having attended medical school and practiced medicine and later completing an MFA, my experiences are different than you describe. Empathy starts in giving students an empathic education. My medical education was much more empathic towards the students than my MFA. In medicine we learn to question assumptions and look at every idea. Also, in medical education and in medicine we deal with very ill people and try to help them achieve better health and life outcomes. In my MFA program, there was little toleration of different ideas and although my program’s faculty and fellow students are wonderful people, there was often a lack of empathy for differences in students. As an older student there was a tremendous amount of ageism. I think perhaps as well as physicians learning from artists, artists could benefit from an experience with actual medical practice, such as shadowing a nurse or doctor in the ICU, the Covid ward, a routine family practice, and surgery, to name a few potential opportunities.

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