January 27, 2012 2:40 pm

Art for art’s sake?

It may be reasonable to associate business education with the rational and the tangible. It is intriguing therefore that many business schools place great emphasis and in certain cases devote great resources, to their collections of art.

Like most schools’ collections, art at the University of Chicago Booth School has not been acquired with investment in mind. “We are educators, not investors”, explains Canice Prendergast, a professor of economics at Booth who is intimately involved in the collection’s development.

Reflecting the school’s mission to embrace conceptual challenges, the diverse collection is abstract and contemporary in nature.

“Just because [a subject] looks very much removed from how you currently learn does not mean you should ignore it - often it’s precisely what you should embrace partly as no one else is,” argues Prof Prendergast. Challenging photography – including an evocative series of pieces by renowned artist Wolfgang Tillmans – is well represented within the Booth collection.

“Our interest is to open student’s minds to the idea that you can make a statement in a way that is not always literal and not always obvious”, says Prof Prendergast.

It is not only at Chicago Booth that challenging art is understood as a suitable complement to a challenging curriculum. Motivated by an absence of artistic inspiration in his time at Harvard Business School, MBA alumnus Gerald Schwartz has been procuring an eclectic array of thought-provoking pieces for his alma mater over the past two decades.

The Schwartz Art Collection has grown to more than 200 pieces, which the benefactor stipulates should all be displayed in public areas well-frequented by MBA students. Curator Sharon Black says that “the key is impact, not posterity”. While conceding that many pieces could fetch handsome sums at auction, Ms Black maintains that the artwork is not in any sense a financial investment. Procured purely on merit and donated in trust for future students, “the HBS collection is not something that we would ever look to be selling”, says Ms Black.

Just along the Charles River in Boston, MIT’s Sloan School of Management has not only established a comparably extensive permanent collection, but also a commitment to public art. In accordance with the MIT’s Percent-for-Art programme – whereby up to $250,000 for each new capital investment is set aside for the procurement of public art – Sloan is now home to eight major public works.

The most recent Percent-for-Art commission, Ring Stone by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, was largely selected for its metaphorical embodiment of strong relations – cultural and business – between MIT Sloan and China.

Bob Mooney, alumnus and chief financial officer of the College of William and Mary’s Mason School, notes the importance of the school’s identity in selecting artwork for the new Miller Hall. “Our collection slows our pace to reflect on and celebrate our history”, says Mr Mooney, “while inspiring us to think creatively and see things differently”.

Mason’s reflective collection – composed principally of donations from friends and alumni, including Mr Mooney – is part of a broader, diverse student exposure to the liberal arts during their programmes. While developing innovative thinking among business students is a fundamental objective, “art is used to remind students that beauty and imagination are an important part of life”, says Mr Mooney. Perhaps above all in a competitive job market, he notes, “one cannot under-estimate the importance of MBA students being interesting people”.

The dean of Ceibs, John Quelch, similarly perceives a need for the humanities to provide a rounded business school experience. He says this need is particularly acute in contemporary China, where young entrepreneurs risk a “spiritual vacuum” in their pursuit of financial opportunities.

In its attempt to cultivate a more creative campus atmosphere, Ceibs is adopting a novel approach. In contrast to the art trusts of many of its US counterparts, the school is to establish an art investment fund to be managed as an endowment. An art investment committee – composed of alumni, faculty and students – may procure and dispose of work with a view to increasing the fund’s value. As part of this project, Ceibs has also scheduled seminars to educate its students about the potential pitfalls of investing in art – a topical issue given the current ‘bubble’ in Chinese artwork. The lesson, in short, is that “art can be profitable, as well as entertaining and educational”, says Prof Quelch.

While there is apparently scope for art to play a more tangible role in the provision of business education, it remains to be seen whether the Ceibs model proves pioneering. It appears certain, however, that the intangible value placed by schools on art shows little sign of waning.

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