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Minneapolis Institute of Art to Establish Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts

The Minneapolis Institute of Art, or MIA, announced today that it is launching the first-ever Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts within an art museum. The institution will collaborate with scholars, philosophers, artists, and colleagues at other museums to explore “best practices to foster compassion and enhance related emotional skills.” Funded by a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the five-year project aims to build empathy in order to affect positive social change.

Commenting on the initiative, director Kaywin Feldman said, “A visitor to our museum has the opportunity to experience works of art made over the course of some five thousand years, from every corner of the globe. One of the most meaningful aspects of this encounter is the awareness it can awaken of a common humanity—an immediate sense of connection between the viewer and someone who may have lived in a very different time and place. Thanks to the Mellon Foundation, we’re proud to take the lead with partners across the country, in studying how to spark and nurture empathy through the visual arts, so that MIA and all art museums can contribute even more toward building a just and harmonious society.”

The first phase of this initiative kicked off in October, when the MIA invited experts in the social sciences, empathy research, virtual reality, and neuroscience fields, in addition to museum curators and directors, artists, and educators, to discuss empathy and the art museum at the University of California, Berkeley—a partner in the research project.

“Aesthetic experiences—in viewing a painting, sculpture, photograph, or dance, or in music—are sources of awe and wonder,” said Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “They enable us to solve a complex mystery—to understand what our fellow humans think and feel. For these reasons, the museum may be one of the great catalysts of human empathy and compassion. That possibility is the focus of MIA’s new scientific initiative with UC Berkeley and the Greater Good Science Center.”

During the initiative’s second phase, the center will put together a guide for museum educators and curators on how to best use their collections to foster empathy among visitors.

In addition to the launch of the Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts, the museum also announced that it received a $520,000 grant from the Ford Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. The grant will fund the museum’s ongoing “Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility” initiative, which will pay for a new fellowship program for college students who are historically underrepresented. The museum will collaborate with Twin Cities’ colleges and other organizations to recruit candidates of culturally diverse backgrounds. The MIA will also use the grant money to expand its current Native American Fellowship Program.

“At MIA, we believe that embracing diversity as a core value, not just as a program, will bring more voices, perspectives, and experiences to the field and its practice,” Feldman said. “Within the next decade, we hope to see a significant impact on young leadership in the museum field.”