Art has many, and sometimes contrary, purposes. But one value that viewing and thinking about art is supposed to foster is empathy, the ability to understand or feel the experience of others from their perspective. Now, reports Sarah Cascone at artnet News, the Minneapolis Institute of Art has received a large grant to establish the world’s first Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts.
Cascone reports that museum is receiving a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to establish the center, which will bring together researchers, philosophers, artists and other experts to explore the ways museums can evoke empathy in their partrons and promote emotional intelligence. “A visitor to our museum has the opportunity to experience works of art made over the course of some 5,000 years, from every corner of the globe. One of the most meaningful aspects of this encounter is the awareness it can awaken of a common humanity—an immediate sense of connection between the viewer and someone who may have lived in a very different time and place,” Kaywin Feldman, director and president of the Institute, says in a press release. “Thanks to the Mellon Foundation, we’re proud to take the lead with partners across the country, in studying how to spark and nurture empathy through the visual arts, so that Mia and all art museums can contribute even more toward building a just and harmonious society.”
Feldman tells Cascone that modern notions of empathy are intimately tied to the visual arts; the term itself was coined by German philosopher Wilhelm Wundt in the 1800s to describe the feeling people get when looking at artwork and projecting emotion.
The new center will be operated in partnership with the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, whose director, Dacher Keltner, runs the Greater Good Science Center and studies empathy.
The initiative began in October when 12 researchers including a historian, neuroscientist and representative from Google formed a think tank to consider how to research empathy. Step one is to learn how to measure empathy of visitors and learn how to promote empathy. The hope is to create strategies and tools to help museums around the world promote empathy.
To begin with, the institute will measure the empathy of visitors when they arrive at the museum and after they have viewed the collection. “Certain human beings are born with a greater propensity toward empathy, but empathy can be taught, and it’s something art museums can help do,” Feldman tells Cascone.
Keltner, for one, feels that art museums in particular are a great place to start talking about empathy. “To be human is to express our emotions in art,” he says in the press release. “Aesthetic experiences—in viewing a painting, sculpture, photograph, or dance, or in music—are sources of awe and wonder. They enable us to solve a complex mystery—to understand what our fellow humans think and feel. For these reasons, the museum may be one of the great catalysts of human empathy and compassion. That possibility is the focus of Mia’s new scientific initiative with UC Berkeley and the Greater Good Science Center.”
This isn’t the first time museums have been used to foster empathy. In 2015, Australian philosopher Roman Krznaric launched the Empathy Museum, a traveling arts exhibit that literally allows people to walk in someone else’s shoes.