The impact of art-making in the university workplace

Upitis, R., Smithrim, K., Garbati, J., & Ogden, H. (2008). The impact of art-making in the university workplace. International journal of education & the arts, 9(8), 1-25.

Abstract:

This ethnographic case study documents the experience of social research professionals participating in weekly art-making sessions at Queen’s University. The art sessions were started during a long-term, complex national research project in order to help the professionals cope with the demands of the project. In the sixth year of these art sessions researchers interviewed participants in order to discover and document important themes from the sessions. They then transcribed and analyzed the interview text in order to discover the central themes. These included: strengthened and deepened individual professional relationships, an increased sense of community with a decrease in perceived institutional hierarchy, and amelioration in mood including frequent laughter contributing to a decrease in stress and an increase in energy and enthusiasm for work projects.

Key Findings:

This study finds that through participating in a weekly art activity over an extended period of time (six years), social research professionals at Queen’s University reported growth and increased depth in their professional relationships which in turn enabled them to build trust and collaborate more effectively in research projects.

Because each person took turns leading an activity or demonstrating their artistic strengths, the researchers found that a strong sense of community was fostered over time and traditional hierarchical dynamics (full professor to research assistant) were deemphasized. The participants regarded each other as creative people and became familiar with each person’s unique creative problem-solving process including their individual struggles and frustrations. Participants also reported the art-making process benefits of frequent laughter and stress release contributed professionally to increased energy and enthusiasm.

By regularly engaging in an embodied learning practice and honing skills of observation, participants reported the calming influence of regular art-making. Researchers found that by bringing aesthetic elements into the workplace, they helped the participants find beauty and creativity in their work.

Significance of the Findings:

This study demonstrates the important role that art can play in a professional workplace culture. Specifically, the study shows how introducing art into the Queen’s University research environment enriched the meaning of the research, the relationships between the researchers, and their personal and professional lives. Making art on a weekly basis became integral to the research itself, changing the rhythm of the work. By reintroducing the making of art into the research of arts-based issues, the academic professionals were able to reconnect what had brought them to arts education research in the first place.

Methodology:

Faculty members and graduate students involved in a seven year national research study at Queen’s University looking at the effects of the Learning Through the Arts (LTTA) school improvement program participated in weekly art activities. During the art sessions the academic professionals worked with a range of materials including but not limited to watercolors, acrylics, fused glass, and collage. For six years, starting in 2002, the academic research team met weekly to make art. In the sixth year the researchers undertook this study to explore how the art sessions influenced their professional and personal lives. A graduate student who had occasionally participated in the art sessions interviewed six participants from the team and one observer of the weekly two-hour activity about their experiences in the art sessions.

The interviews were based on a semi-standardized question guide. Five were completed in person and two were written. Four of the participants had been attending weekly art-making session from 2002-2008. Two were faculty members, one a graduate student, and one an administrative assistant. Two additional graduate student participants who had been in the art-making group for a shorter amount of time were also interviewed. Two researchers analyzed and coded transcriptions of the interviews for central themes. They then discussed any discrepancies in their findings.

Limitations of the Research:

The sample size was small and there were a variety of other variables that weren’t controlled for among the participants including gender, education, socio-economic status and race. The researchers were also linked to the participants, which may have affected the answers they received although the researchers do not specifically address this issue.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Do adults in other informal learning sessions also show increased levels of trust and community after participating in art-making? How would the group dynamics of the Queen’s University researchers change if the art sessions were stopped?