Can gazing at art boost your empathy? The Minneapolis Institute of Art is embarking on a five-year, $750,000 experiment to find out.
The museum recently nabbed a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to explore whether spending time in an art center might help you imagine the lives of others, feeling what they feel. As the country wrestles with deep geographic, racial and economic divisions, cultural institutions are arguing that they’re the perfect places to help people see past those lines. “This is a time period where we could all benefit from greater understanding of other people ... who don’t have the same life experiences,” said Kaywin Feldman, institute director.
The results of the project could change how museums across the country feel and function. Researchers will test visitors’ empathy as they enter, and then on their way out — perhaps by having them respond to expressions or emoji on iPads. They’ll measure the effects of an interactive art display versus a static one. They’ll experiment with telling more compelling stories about the artworks, tweaking tours and wall labels.
“This is a big bet for a foundation and for a museum,” said Elizabeth Merritt, vice president of the Center for the Future of Museums.
That center, part of the American Alliance for Museums, recently predicted that “closing the empathy deficit” would become a major trend in the museum world. Across the country, art centers are experimenting with how they can use “their collections and spaces to help build empathy for people we may not immediately see our connection with,” Merritt said, “people we have put in the category of ‘other.’ ”
The MIA’s announcement in December that it would create the world’s first Center for Empathy and Visual Arts is the most significant of those projects, she said. “I’m hoping it has some enduring effects.”
Art museums are especially well-equipped to build empathy, their leaders argue, because their paintings, sculptures and objects connect visitors to how other people are living — and in the case of MIA, how they were living centuries ago and continents away. They’re also welcoming. Inexpensive. Immersive.
“They harbor these amazing collections — authentic objects that come with so much character and information and stories,” said Elif Gokcigdem, a Washington, D.C.-based Islamic art historian and author of the 2016 book “Fostering Empathy Through Museums.” People who encounter them connect to those pieces “not just intellectually but also emotionally, through our minds and hearts.
“If we can get people to do that within the museum, then maybe we can also get people to do that in their everyday lives.”
But as “empathy” has become a buzzword in arts and academic circles, some critics have cautioned against promoting it as a cure-all.
Measuring the arts’ impact on empathy is “a really tricky thing,” said Michael Rushton, a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. While some experiments have noted immediate changes on students who just experienced art, he said, “we don’t really know: How does it change people over the long-term?
“I worry about people making bigger claims for the arts and empathy than we can really make.”
Intuitively, people assume that the arts can build empathy because they’ve been moved by a book, a movie or a painting, said Rushton, who teaches in the arts administration program and, in 2017, wrote a critical piece on empathy and the arts for the journal Cultural Trends. But does crying at a movie mean that you’re a more empathetic person at work the next day? The following week?
Rushton supports foundations funding research in the arts, he noted. But he worries more broadly about funding and valuing only the artworks that seem likely to create empathy, especially from artists of color.
In recent years, young people have become less empathetic, studies show. A 2010 analysis of dozens of studies showed a 48 percent decline in empathy — measured largely by college students’ responses on tests — over the past four decades, with the steepest drop since 2000. As empathetic traits (including emotional intelligence) have declined, narcissism has grown, according to that study’s author, the University of Michigan’s Sara Konrath.
For the Mellon project, MIA has teamed up with the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab at the University of California, Berkeley to study the effect seeing artworks has on empathy, though they haven’t worked out exactly how they’ll measure it. With a team of artists, administrators and experts from many fields, the new center will spend a few years developing and testing ideas. Later, it will share guides and tools with museums across the country.
In October, the museum gathered some of those experts on the Berkeley campus to discuss what researchers know about empathy — and what they don’t.
One thing they all agreed on, Feldman said: “It’s genetic. But it can also be taught.”
There’s a dark side to empathy, a white paper by MIA staff acknowledges. Corporations can use empathy to manipulate. People tend to connect with cute things, like puppies, and with people who look like them. Within institutions that have traditionally overrepresented white, male perspectives, empathy can reinforce those power structures.
That’s why, on the same day MIA announced the Mellon grant, it also announced a $520,000 grant from the Ford and Walton Family foundations for its ongoing work around inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility, Feldman said.
“They are absolutely related,” she said. “The more work we can do diversifying our staff and board and audience, the more empathic an organization we can be.”
Recently, Feldman heard from a woman who was disturbed by her visit to the museum: Within the European galleries, she noticed, there were many portraits, part of that tradition. But in Chinese, Japanese and African galleries, there were far fewer faces.
“They don’t have that tradition, so you don’t feel the people,” Feldman said. “We’re all so ensconced in our art-world bubble that I hadn’t thought about that.”
The visitor suggested a solution that the new center will consider: For objects without faces, the museum could include photos of the artist on the labels. “I can tell you that would never occur to an art historian,” Feldman said. “What it made me realize is that it’s about empathy.
Having an image of the artist “can help people have a greater appreciation for the object,” she said, “a deeper connection to the story.”