Learning about leadership from a visit to the art museum

Kaimal, G., Drescher, J., Fairbank, H., Gonzaga, A., Junkin, J., & White, G.P. (2016). Learning about leadership from a visit to the art museum. International Journal of Education and the Arts, 17(6).


This qualitative study presents an analysis of how guided visits to an art museum can provide leadership lessons for developing urban school leaders. Fourteen principal interns participated in teaching artist-facilitated guided arts engagement sessions at a large metropolitan museum. The sessions included art-making, observations of portraiture, discussions around their reactions to the art, and information on the artists’ choices, processes, and techniques. Data sources included observations of the sessions and interviews with participants which were analyzed using thematic analysis methods (identification of patterns across sets of data). Findings indicated guided engagement with the visual arts provided insights to participants about themselves (intrapersonal learning), understanding about how others learn (interpersonal learning), and development of a sense of agency through creative self-expression and changes in practice. 

Key Findings:

The main themes that emerged from the study included intra- and inter-personal learning and developing a sense of agency through creative self-expression. Feedback from participants indicates that the experience of visiting an art museum through the guided experiential engagement with a teaching artist was helpful to learn new aspects about themselves, about the subjectivity of individual perceptions of the world, and about the potential for making creative self-expression accessible to all.

This study suggests that the introduction of artistic engagement can change both an individual and their interaction with staff and students at their schools. The main linking analogy that enabled learning transfer was that of perspective and point of view. Through making narrative descriptions of the process and product, sharing in a group context, listening to diverse points of view, creating art themselves, and overcoming initial inhibitions, leaders gained new perspective on their role in school and strove to improve their skills and practice.

Significance of the Findings:

In practice, teaching leadership in urban education settings requires creativity and “out of the box” thinking. Urban educators are faced with leading classrooms that are often under-resourced and are in neighborhoods where students’ families are unable to financially supplement a students’ education. Under-resourced and under-funded urban schools require leaders to make tough decisions related to budget and provide a balanced disciplinary environment. Attending professional development based in an art museum experience can be a source of empowerment and agency for principals to be creative in facing the challenges of the urban school environment. It will also allow them to see the world from their student’s perspective more readily, enabling them to react in positive and effective ways. Policy makers and district leaders should support arts-based leadership programs to increase the effectiveness of teachers’ responses to a diverse student population.


The data for this project were collected as part of the evaluation of two leadership development initiatives. The researchers comprise the staff and faculty of these two programs that worked with the 14 participants of the study. The curriculum of the two programs was meant to foster learning in and through the arts by providing opportunities for creativity and imagination among the project participants. The seminars principals attended contained four key elements related to aesthetic education – inquiry, art-making, contextual exploration, and reflection.

Quantitative data for the study came from feedback surveys and qualitative data was derived from observations of the sessions by the researchers, in-session contributions from participants, and interviews with participants. Notes and surveys were taken before and after the sessions and included in the database later as part of the qualitative data. The interviews were transcribed and analyzed to identify themes and patterns from the responses of the participants.

Limitations of the Research:

The researchers identified limitations to the study.

• The participants were a self-selected group of aspiring and experienced school leaders who were open and willing to participate in the sessions.

• The creativity sessions were not mandatory to all participating school leaders, and thus, not everyone chose to attend when given a choice.

• There was attrition over the course of the study from aspiring school leaders upon their graduation from their certification programs.

• Some participants let their diffidence and lack of skill in the art form to negatively impact their learning even though the teaching artists and the facilitators attempted to dispel the perception that any skills were needed to participate and learn.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Potential questions for future research include:

• How do visits to museums spark and sustain new learning around leadership?

• How can we use the arts to drive empathy and respect for diversity?

• How can the arts become a space to engage in dialogue around leadership and leadership development?

• How can learning in museums be transferred to education reform?