Roy Lichtenstein ‘Crying Girl (C. II.1)’ signed and dated 1963 offset lithograph on paper sheet: … [+]
Art appreciation helps us to better understand how others feel, allowing us to relate to people from different backgrounds and broadening our world view. Despite a lack of empirical research supporting the theory that the visual arts promote empathy, centuries of human experience reveal that engaging emotionally and cognitively with works of art can hone skills that expand our understanding of humanity.
Katherine N. Cotter and James O. Pawelski of the University of Pennsylvania studied the perceptions of 208 art museum professionals regarding the goals of art museums and the ability of art museums to impact both well-being (empathy, self-acceptance, etc.) and ill-being (anxiety, loneliness, etc.) factors.
“The findings suggest that art museum professionals feel that the well-being of visitors should be emphasized as a goal more strongly than it currently is, and that there are some well-being and ill-being components (e.g., empathy, helping, closed-mindedness) that should receive greater attention than others,” Cotter and Pawelski write in Flourishing Aims of Art Museums: A Survey of Art Museum Professionals.
Existing research confirms that people visit art museums for a wide range of reasons, from relaxation to a desire to learn something new. Sadly, a small majority of people in the United States engage with the art world. In 2017, 53.8% of adults in the U.S. attended artistic, creative, or cultural activities, according to the NEA’s U.S. Patterns of Arts Participation: A Full Report from the 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. A 2021 large-scale multi-method descriptive study by Pawelski and two other colleagues of the content of personally significant arts- and humanities-related experiences in the U.S. found that “many people engage with the arts frequently in their everyday lives.” Other studies reveal high levels of art engagement in Europe, specifically Finland, Norway, Sweden, Poland, and the United Kingdom.
Art museum professionals surveyed believe that empathy and engagement are the well-being factors that should be most highly prioritized, and art museums are currently most effective in increasing visitor empathy and engagement.
“Participants felt that increasing helping, empathy, and self-acceptance should be more highly prioritized than it currently is, and that improving emotional stability, positive emotions, and vitality should be a lower priority than it currently is,” Cotter and Pawelski write.
The new research broadens the potential scope of impact museums can make on viewers. Prior research on museum engagement has tended to focus on a few outcomes, such as the ability of art museums to promote social connection and to reduce loneliness, Cotter and Pawelski note.
“Interestingly, art museum professionals indicated than art museums should focus less on increasing positive emotions and decreasing negative emotions in their visitors. One potential explanation for this surprising finding may be related to the factors art museum professionals feel should be more highly emphasized, such as increasing empathy and helping behaviors and reducing closed-mindedness,” Cotter and Pawelski write. “It’s possible that in making progress toward these …….