How museums cultivate the imagination

Can art from ancient civilizations be relevant to young adult visitors, particularly Generation X and Y students? Can these objects prompt thinking or experiences relevant to the present day and tap the “capacities of the heart” that Michael Gallagher identifies in addition to wonder—such as “searching,” “listening” and “receptivity?” What might these capacities add to the museum experiences that would inform various experiences in everyday life? One way would be toward a disposition of deep listening and being receptive to others, rather than imposing our pre-conceived notions of what is, or should be. How does viewing and interacting with art objects contribute to this disposition? The Philosopher of Education, John Dewey, describes the process as that of cultivating the imagination and its resulting outcome as “intelligent sympathy” or good will.   Dewey explains what he means by intelligent sympathy:

Sympathy as a desirable quality is something more than mere feeling;

it is a cultivated imagination for what men have in common and a rebellion

at whatever necessarily divides them.

The important thing to keep in mind is that for Dewey it is a sincere benevolence—not meant to mask the feigned benevolence in an attempt to control another, but honor the other in thinking and feeling freely seeking and humbly allow them in finding whatever they themselves choose. An added value of cultivating the imagination is what Kant observed is that the mind’s awareness of freedom grows with trust in the power of the imagination.

An excerpt from “THE ART MUSEUM AS LABORATORY FOR REIMAGINING A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE” Theresa McNichol in Positive Design and Appreciative Construction: From Sustainable Development to Sustainable Value Advances in Appreciative Inquiry, Volume 3, 177–193 Copyright r 2010 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited All rights of reproduction in any form reserved ISSN: 1475-9152/doi:10.1108/S1475-9152(2010)0000003014

Updated research findings will be reported in forthcoming article late 2016.

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Giorgio Morandi’s Cosmos

A former painting student of mine can’t understand why painters like me are excited about the two concurrent Giorgio Morandi exhibitions in New York. How can one explain to the uninitiated that standing before a Morandi painting is like having a spiritual experience.


As New York Times art critic, Roberta Smith, writes a Morandi painting is a “universe on a tabletop.” Similarly, consider the painting “Six Persimmons” by the Zen painter MuQi (13th century). It cannot be explained, it can only be contemplated. The Chinese art scholar, James Cahill, invites his students to just LOOK at it. If you would like to give it a try: see his youtube video

But if you can, go see the Morandi paintings in New York and be mesmerized.



Credit Morandi images: Credit Mu Qi Six Persimmons:

Roberta Smith:

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Howard C. Nusbaum on the Science of Wisdom: Practical Benefits for Students

In a recent interview, University of Chicago Professor of Psychology, Howard C. C. Nusbaum talked about his early research particularly related to the ways in which experience changes us and how these experiences change us. As an artist art-historian my ears are naturally attuned to topics around perception, attention, and learning and the like that Nusbaum said engaged him as well. For the past 25 years, my community college students’ essays about looking at art objects in a museum became the basis of my research on their thinking processes about their museum experiences—not just what they knew about another culture but more how they came to know. Nusbaum’s current research interests have expanded to include wisdom along with a new course, Understanding Wisdom. For Nusbaum, being wise is not being all-knowing, but rather being in possession of epistemic humility: one who is knowledgeable in his or her field but also cognizant that it is only one piece, not the entire puzzle. Such a person is open to new and expanded knowledge rather than closed off to others thinking they know all that there is to know. Professor Nusbaum also sees value relativism as an offshoot of epistemic humility; i.e. the ability to appreciate “different people’s values as having importance in their lives and importance for their decisions and processing of information.” In my research, I have identified a similar quality in the students through the jing “reverence” they bring to the museum art objects and recording their careful and reflective thinking revealing a process of evaluative judgments.

On his recent trip to China, Nusbaum meeting with middle school educators was reminded of Philosopher of Education John Dewey’s sojourn in China (1919-21) and the emphasis Dewey placed on learning skills and knowledge in an applied setting. The “second Confucius”—as the Chinese referred to Dewey—was a proponent of “hands on” or experiential learning and saw democracy intertwined with the one ultimate ethical ideal of humanity, the latter being the foundational Confucian concept of altruistic moral conduct.

From my own reading, Dewey deeply admired traditional Chinese culture and the way in which the Dao, or The Way, was the standard of perfection for the individual to emulate and cultivate as modeled by the Sage Kings of antiquity. For the Chinese, intelligence alone was not enough for a successful career at court for great emphasis was placed on learning and the arts as the path to both authority and wisdom. From my background as Chinese art historian, the role of the arts played in this process was key for the ritualizing practice of the Three Perfections—calligraphy, poetry, painting— over one’s lifetime was as essential to a scholar- bureaucrat’s portfolio of excellence as was passing the civil examinations. Composing a poem or putting brush to paper by a person of the Dao gave coherent form to patterns unseen before so that they could be shared with as well as appreciated by one’s peers which underscored the communal as well as innovative aspects of practical wisdom. “The success of the Chinese literati tradition of politicized self-cultivation—that of becoming an “inner sage, outer king,” paid off: the scholar-bureaucrats were successful in administering the world’s largest economy and sustaining it over two millennia (private conversation Henry Rosemont, Jr.).”

Link here to the Jean Matelski-Boulware’s interview with Howard C. Nusbaum, an excerpt from the documentary film The Science of Wisdom:

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Lois Dodd Exhibit, NYC, 2015. Recent Paintings

Upon entering into the main exhibit room at at Alexandre Gallery from icy NYC cityscape outside, one is immediately hit with nature’s brilliant colors captured on paintings hanging inside. It takes a few moments to separate them out—a fiery sugar maple tree at its autumnal peak, a Christmas amaryllis dominating its frame. The vermilions and cadmium reds are contrasted with a cacophony of acid greens that eventually coalesce into a melodic fugue. Yet once settled into the gallery space, it’s the bleak but luminous shades of pink and gray sugaring the winter landscape with snow reminding the viewer that it is still winter outside. But have no fear. The painter Lois Dodd graciously positions the viewer in a warm southern window looking out at the winterscapes some of which are sharply etched in the architectural lines of windows and houses while others are softly blanketed with filmy layers of pink and gray layers of atmosphere. Going from painting to painting is a different vista viewed from different windows—or one aptly titled “Reflected Light on Brick Wall” with the light shaped by the window’s frame cast upon a solid brick wall that results in a tripartite meditation on variations of brick tones in reflected light. In another painting, anemic house plants huddle on a shelf at the window doing their best to absorb some light from the falling snow outside mirroring our own winter weary spirits. But catching sight of the pruned apple tree is a much-needed reminder of the promise of spring—it is dormant for now but the tree’s pink trunk hints at buds that have been gathering strength all winter in the alternation of freezing and thawing temperatures that will produce the burst of blossoms in another two months or so. So feed your soul, feed your psyche all the while in the accompaniment of Mother Nature’s dance and a luminous light captured in the strokes of the brush of the amazing painter, Lois Dodd. Pay a visit to Alexandre Gallery, if not in person, online at For a rare treat read an interview with the artist:

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College Art Association Meets in New York City

New York’s Fashion Week may be all the rage this week, but last week artists, art historians and educators from all over the world worked it at College Art Association’s annual meeting in the Big Apple. While it was impossible to attend all the sessions, the ones I did delivered big time and I heard the same from other colleagues who followed different tracks. On COLOR—participants were treated to amazing images of cutting edge designs from students at Art Institute of Chicago, and later asked to stretch our perceptions by looking at a 3-D color map in contrast to the flat 2D one we normally employ. At a Getty Institute session, attendees were challenged to reconsider and reframe museum leadership skills in a global context. Similarly, other sessions sought to apply a global “lens” to other perspectives those of and from the “Other;” and not just “non-Western” voices but also from the perspectives of post-Colonial peoples such as Guatemala and India. A session considering Islamic contemporary art began by examining just what is “Islamic”–Arab, Persian, Mediterranean, or Muhammadan—all terms that demonstrate a moving brush rather than a fixed point, or as one historian aptly put it “just where does the North meet the East?” The term “contemporary” turned problematic as well for its very use implies something implemented in the past; yet, if it is also to be inclusive it requires bringing a comprehensive (or narrow) frame to works of the “now” distinguished from those of the archival past. From there, it was on to a session on “Realism” to hear nineteenth-century art historians cover topics ranging from its beginnings with Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) on up to the present day. As summarized by Gabriel Weisberg, “realism” is still a slippery term about works seemingly concrete but decidedly abstract. The latter was demonstrated in both Burton Silverman’s (b. 19280) study and painting of the Jazz Musician. Silverman who joined the panel told his process of working directly from the model for both works. While there is no mistaking both study and finished painting are one and the same individual, there is a marked difference in their handling: the realized painting’s subject is younger, slimmer and more upright as if looking expectantly into his future, while the musician in the study is older, stockier a bit more collapsed into his relaxed pose—or is it one of acceptance that comes over a long time of finally coming to terms with an endless string of false starts, career setbacks and rejections, encapsulating, at least for this viewer, Weisberg’s “fictive illusion.” (to be continued)

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Minding The Big Pivot

Last week opened with my attending a Tibetan Buddhist prayer ceremony held on the Monmouth University campus on Monday and wrapping up with a Friday morning program at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Institute of Sustainable Enterprise.  There I heard author Andrew Winston (Green to Gold), internationally recognized economist, present to a gathering of ecologically-minded individuals on his latest book The Big Pivot with the sober warning that we have passed the economic tipping point of the earth’s available resources. As incongruent as these two events might appear at first by being paired in the same blog, they are also inextricably linked in a very deep way.

Andrew Winston began by showing images as evidence of climate change: a polar bear hanging on for dear life with its two front paws to a small ice floe. He contrasted this ‘free range’ bear with images of the destruction wrought by Hurricanes Sandy in 2013 and Irene two years prior that those of us who live on the eastern seaboard know only too well. To drive home China’s burgeoning development, Winston used an  image of the skyscrapers of Manhattan that was duplicated 30 times on a single slide. As if anticipating the government report on climate change today, Winston told the audience we are past the time of debating about climate change—it is here (last week’s images on national television of Florida should convince anyone just looking at what a foot rainfall fraught— swelling waterways, entire roads uplifted and bridges washed away). All is not doom and gloom, however, for Winston offers a ten step plan that comes under the three buckets: Vision, Collaboration, Policy. Although there needs to be a sea change, Winston is confident it can be done with a change in perception.  He reminded his audience that the main forms used in accounting—Profit & Loss and Balance Sheet –have come down to us from the Middle Ages. A radical change to these forms could cause a major shift in perception that would alter exactly what gets analyzed and what gets measured.

Getting back to our Tibetan Buddhist ceremony on Monday: seven monks performed the Empowerment Prayers to both Bodhisattva Manjushri worshiped for his Wisdom, and Medicine Buddha who is dedicated to healing through removing all obstacles. On this particular day it was concentrated on removing obstacles on the Monmouth University campus and by extension, all campuses in New Jersey and the rest of the world. The obstacles are not in the form of physical things, but are the mental afflictions that keep human beings mired in the cycle of suffering of samsara through their ignorance, hatred and greed.  Reining in the mental afflictions begins with a shift in perception that can have a big ripple effect hopefully as far as the Arctic in time for a polar bear that is helplessly adrift.

The Big Pivot at

Also, check out Jeana Wirtenberg’s Building a Culture for Sustainability: People, Planet, and Profits in a New Green Economy with a forward by Winston:

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Nine Trailblazing Companies on a Greener Pathway to People, Planet & Profits

Should you be feeling skeptical about yet another book with the word “sustainability” in its title, fear not: Jeana Wirtenberg’s Building a Culture for Sustainability covers the topic without any of the “green washing.” Fully cognizant of the fact that real change has to happen at the ground level of any system, Wirtenberg fearlessly tackles the concept of culture. How else to address those deeply held beliefs and assumptions that drive daily behavioral habits that more often than not are unconscious? It is only by tugging on the roots that companies can begin to move towards the triple bottom line of “People, Planet and Profits” in a green economy.

Like a dedicated ethnographer, Wirtenberg sits down to interview key sustainability drivers at nine companies. By sifting through their “artifacts” she is able to showcase for the reader the values that underpin each company’s supply chains, operations, and products and services for their customers. Clearly, she brings a natural appreciation for the human side of sustainability and engages with the hearts and minds of her interviewees and their peers. And because of this empathic style, people naturally share with her examples of employee-driven initiatives that contribute meaning to their work lives. One such initiative is Alcatel Lucent’s StrongHer, a bottom-up affinity group started by women for women that in a few years’ time has grown to a membership of 900 (16% men) with 1000 followers worldwide. She also identifies a source of pride for Church & Dwight employees who consider being the inaugural sponsor of the first Earth Day in 1970 a company legacy.

This book is far too rich to do it justice in the space allotted, but I assure you there is so much more to be uncovered and for your efforts, you will be well-rewarded. To get you started, here are a few “field” samples: (1) check out Alcoa’s Keystone Institute that trains teachers how to investigate current environmental issues with their students; (2) find out why BASF’s Verbund is the key ingredient of every function of its operations; (3) check out Ingersoll Rand’s OneSTEPForward and where it stands in the current marketers’ debate over customer pull vs. vendor push; (4) find out how and why Pfizer completely changed its philanthropy, replacing capital with human capital in the way of skill-based volunteerism; (5) seek out how Sanofi’s synergistic-collaborative approach to reducing health-care costs is reenergizing its employees; (6) read about Wyndham’s all-inclusive “eco-learning culture,” in house as well as with its guests; and finally, (7) check out Bureau Veritas and its participation in the UN-sponsored World Environment Day that is considered by BV employees as its best practice.

Here’s the mother lode for your efforts: in the final chapter you will uncover “green” gold in the four tables provided by Wirtenberg that contextualize practices, both limitations and best practices. For example, a table is provided with specific categories and key stakeholders, along with her recommendations for sustainability-inspired habits necessary to bring real and deep change to the world. All in all, the tables are a valuable resource that can be referred to for years to come.

Find Wirtenberg’s Building a Culture For Sustainability: People, Planet, and Profits in a New Green Economy

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