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MFAs Instead of MBAs: Artists in the Business World (from The pARTnership Movement)


So, an artist walks into an office…

I know, it sounds like the start of a bad joke. But many artists start their careers or support themselves by taking “day jobs.” Andy Warhol worked in advertising. Modest Mussorgsky was a civil servant. Franz Kafka investigated personal injury cases for an insurance company. But is an artist in the office one of life’s small cruelties? Not necessarily.

A recent article featured in The Globe and Mail suggests that businesses looking to become innovators might want to consider hiring artists over those with more traditional business degrees.

Over the past several years, there has been a dramatic shift in the business landscape. Due to the current economic climate and the rapid advancement of technology, businesses are focused on working smarter through innovation. In fact, according to IBM’s 2012 CEO Study, 61 percent of CEOs identify creativity as a key driver of employee success in operating in a more complex, interconnected environment.

Considering the importance of thinking outside the box, bringing artists into the workplace seems like a natural choice. But how well are artists able to translate their artistic skills and sensibility into a corporate environment?

The Globe and Mail article highlights two Canadian businesses:

David Dobson, the director of business development for StarFish Medical, believes that art school gave him a simple business edge: it changed the way he thinks.

An alumnus of Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) University and a graduate of the Queen’s University Executive Business Program, Mr. Dobson believes that his fine art studies helped him translate right-brain ideas into left-brain products. At StarFish Medical, Mr. Dobson helps doctors, physicists, and biomedical engineers realize actual products using their research and technology.

“One of the benefits of a design background in business development is you know how to effectively communicate abstract information,” Mr. Dobson says. “Going to OCAD was invaluable for teaching me how to think broadly and then funnel a lot of ideas down into a better idea, a better option for a customer.”

Similarly, Robert Dimitrieff, the vice president and general manager of Niagara Energy Products, feels that his degree from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design has been extremely useful in critically working through ideas.

As an art student, Mr. Dimitrieff regularly participated in studio critiques where he learned how to receive, and give, harsh criticism. “It helped me to learn to separate myself from my work, and to not let ego get in the way of perfecting the work itself,” says Mr. Dimitrieff. “I’ve found that in business this is a skill that is not as common as one might think.”

Mr. Dimitrieff tries to bring that studio critique environment to Niagara Energy, encouraging collective debate on new ideas and concepts for components for the energy and petro-chemical sectors. Knowing that the ideas brought to the table will be critically examined, the initial ideas become stronger. The result is the ideas that actually endure the review are especially robust and are improved through collaboration and group input.

“The more we do this, the better my team gets at finding something wrong with the ideas,” he says. “It makes everything I do better than if I were to just do it on my own.”

So, if an artist walks into your office, it’s definitely not a joke, but is rather a way to bring some fresh ideas and a new perspective into the workplace.

This post is one in a series highlighting The pARTnership Movement, Americans for the Arts’ campaign to to reach business leaders with the message that partnering with the arts can build their competitive advantage. Visit our website to find out how both businesses and local arts agencies can get involved!

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