Arts News: New Program Helps Medical Students Discover the Benefits of Art

Visitors to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in 2017 might be surprised to see a small gathering of lab-coated medical students from Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences engaging in earnest conversation about art.

Assistant Dean and Associate Professor of Pharmacology Dr. Schoen Kruse has developed a compelling program called “The Art of Observation,” inspired by a similar effort that he participated in during a 2015 faculty development session at the Harvard Macy Institute.

“The Art of Observation” is designed to benefit students in a number of ways. For example, Dr. Kruse notes that physicians frequently suffer from stress-induced burnout. One of the primary goals of the Art of Observation program is to reinforce the importance of downtime.

Kruse states, “We’re so concerned with delivering the right answer, right diagnosis. There is amazing value in being in a setting in which there is no one right answer, where there is no pressure and it’s not about picking what the boss wants.”

He affirms that engaging with art is one technique that students can use to balance life and work, similar to meditating or practicing mindfulness. By taking the time to better care for themselves and their families, ultimately they may be better able to care for their patients.

The program also strives to enrich physicians’ ability to relate to each other and to patients and their families. Prior to the museum visit, Dr. Kruse selects two portraits or paintings of groups of individuals for students to consider and discuss with each other.

“All topics are on the table, from wealth and class of the individuals to their health,” he said. “I tell them it is important to listen to each other and reflect.”

The exercise is about observing carefully and working collaboratively with each other, he added.

The program also incorporates modern art. Dr. Kruse chooses three to four works and asks the students how the art relates to healthcare.

Speaking of the beguiling sculptural work “Ecriture” by Jesús Rafael Soto, on loan to the Nelson-Atkins from Chestnut Modern LLC, student Dami Lee seems to advocate for keeping an open mind. “When you first see it, you kind of make that snap judgment. But once you spend some more time reflecting upon the judgments that you made, the impressions that you had, you have different perspectives.”

In another exercise, Dr. Kruse provides one question to each student, such as “Find an image of a person with whom you find it challenging to empathize. What seems to be blocking your connection?” or “If you were bringing a depressed friend to the museum, what work would you share with them, and why?” After selecting such a work, the student then takes the group to it and leads a discussion of it.

Ultimately, medical students, their families, and their future patients may not be the only ones benefiting from this groundbreaking program. The Nelson-Atkins — and indeed, the art world as a whole — stand to benefit also by gaining important potential advocates for valuing art as something more than entertainment.

Above: Students from Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences assembled in the galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for an “Art of Observation” session designed to help them balance life and work. Pictured from left to right are Schoen Kruse, assistant dean of academic affairs, and KCU anatomy fellows, Dami Lee, Clark Stephenson, Clayton Oakley, Joe Pankratz, Viren Rana and Amy Whitaker. (photo by Keith King)

About The Author: James Martin

James Martin

James Martin is an independent consultant, curator, educator and writer based in the Kansas City area. Most recently, he served as guest curator of “Chromaphilia,” an exhibition of Kansas City Art Institute ceramics department alumni, on view at the KCAI Gallery through June 4. Since 2001, he has focused on working with art located outside of typical art venues, such as public art and corporate and hospital art collections.

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