A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Businessman

The Globe and Mail
November 14, 2000

Have I missed something?

Every provincial government but Quebec has cut back on arts education, apparently deciding that the work force of the future will be better served by graduates with more computer know-how and less training in the arts. At the same time, however, cutting-edge businesses and schools are employing artists and actors to train senior executives in how to think creatively and find new ways of collaborating with colleagues.

I know this, because enlightened companies, such as Bell Canada and Nortel, and the Rotman School of Management have employed the services of art and drama teachers from the Avenue Road Arts School. At the same time, premiers such as Ontario’s Mike Harris find arts specialists entirely dispensable in the public school system. There is an unsettling disconnect here, one that could have a devastating impact in the long term.

In the New Economy, people must think quickly and creatively to have any kind of competitive edge. Apple’s marketing campaign urges us to “think different.” Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School, says New Economy businesses will count on employees to embrace complexity and welcome surprise, and use it to innovate and create.

How does instruction in the arts foster these qualities? Think of it as a form of cross-training. The arts warm up the same muscles that are most useful to surviving in our new world.

In any creative drama class, there are improv exercises that require participants to respond to each other with lightning speed, and role-playing scenarios to get the players into the skin of another person. After a while, this way of working becomes a habit.

Every time an artist creates a work, they are doing something different — something that has never before been done in quite the same way.

Musicians must attend to each note of a musical passage and tune in to the subtle nuances of dynamics. Their training makes them more observant and sensitive and teaches them to offer constructive critiques.

Innovative business schools, such as Rotman, are committed to turning out integrative thinkers who can transcend traditional silos of marketing, human resources and finance. They must be open to working with and understanding colleagues in other disciplines who may speak a different language and operate from a different kind of culture. We need to become adept at forming partnerships, building networks and working in teams. It’s therefore important to be able to establish rapport with other people.

So what does the ability to connect with others have to do with learning the arts? Everything. An artist’s expression has to come from a deep and real place if it is to be authentic and convincing. Creating a work of art entails connecting with one’s true voice, and communicating clearly and dynamically.

We can be trained to notice, to think with imagination, to “think different” and to be open, responsive members of our team.

As a society, it is critical for us to understand that young people who’ve had training in the arts will be the best equipped to survive in the e-commerce economy. It is our duty to prepare our children for this exciting new world in the best ways possible.

Have I missed something? No. But short-sighted provincial education ministries certainly have.

Lola Rasminsky is the director of the Avenue Road Arts School in Toronto, and Beyond the Box, a corporate arts training program.

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