Art School Confidential: Why Artists Make Good Business Leaders

If ever I climb onto my soapbox, it’s because I’m advocating for creativity – in business, in education, and in everyday life.

Imagine my delight when I spotted an article titled Is an MFA the New MBA? in Fast Company‘s Leadership column. Should business leaders and HR department heads start to consider applicants whose four years in university earned them a fine arts degree instead of a business degree?
My wholehearted response: yes, absolutely.

Businesses today promote their products and services by touting their creative edge. Be it slick design, fantastic user-experience, or innovative services, creativity is at the heart of the business plan. So, why not invite those to the table who have spent years training in creativity?

Rene Magritte, 1898-1967. The False Mirror, 1928

Rene Magritte, 1898-1967. The False Mirror, 1928

Says Steven Tepper, Associate Director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University and Research Director of the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP):

“… artists often possess the skills and temperament that business leaders regularly say are in short supply: creativity, resiliency, flexibility, high tolerance for risk and ambiguity, as well as the courage to fail.”

Part of the reason why MFA graduates don’t make it to the top of the HR department’s wish list, is that the art academy is seen as a playground where dreamers and rebels hang out to drink lattes and drip paints around. Well – okay, that’s partly true, there was a lot of coffee and paint dripping in my years at the art academy. But that’s far from the whole picture.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what studying for a Fine Arts degree really looks like:


To develop any idea of substance, you need lots of data to back you up, so as an art student expect to spend a lot of time in the library. For a while I practically lived there. Research also includes endless hours of documenting and cataloging material. This is usually when art class thins out a bit, as student realize “Hey, this is work!”
Required skill set: curiosity, persistence

Bettina's sketchbook - 2002

Bettina’s sketchbook – 2002




Then comes the fun part: development. Here you start experimenting with materials, and you fail – a lot! Though, as one of my professors sagely told me: “There are no mistakes in art. Only unexpected results.” Excellent advice, for artists as well as business leaders (and start-ups who are going through yet another pivot).
Required skill set: experimentation, imagination, willingness to fail


Down to the brass tacks. It’s show-time. Now it’s up to you to create something unique and engaging. You get into the ‘zone,’ that white space where nothing matters but you and whatever it is you’re making. Eating and sleeping get bumped down your ‘to do’ list.
Required skill set: risk taking, exploring, inventing, focus

“There are no mistakes in art. Only unexpected results. Excellent advice, for artists as well as business leaders.”


Let me tell you one thing: don’t be an artist if you can’t take a little criticism. Or, a lot of criticism. Putting up your work for all to see, exhibiting what you’ve taken a huge risk in creating, is nerve wracking. As a gallerist I regularly see melt-downs of even seasoned artists on the evening of their gallery opening. Artists who continue to be successful make criticism their friend and value the feedback of others. In business you’d call that customer feed-back, and it’s ignoring this feedback which makes so many businesses fail.
Required skill set: listening, evaluating, reflecting

If you’re looking for a creative risk taker, an explorer, a communicator, an innovator, then consider the art school graduate.

Or – Plan B: nurture your own creative side. You don’t have to go for an MFA (though, nothing wrong with going back to university for a cerebral refill). Take a few art classes. Check out a gallery show. You may even invite artists into your business and have them work with your team.

Plan B: nurture your own creative side.

Here at Sproutive Kim and I have put together a series of workshops tailored for businesses who are interested in boosting their creative side. From honing your visual storytelling skills to innovative content creation techniques, we get your neurons firing. Let me know if you want to find out more.

In my upcoming posts I’ll throw out a few art challenges you may want to participate in to train your creativity, so stay tuned!