Art Institute of Chicago’s Civic Wellness Initiative Is Using Art to Help Professionals Enhance Empathy and Communication Skills

While many think of the Art Institute of Chicago as a national treasure and a place to spend a carefree afternoon deep in the vast collections of art from around the world, it is also a place where professionals fine-tune their skills to better observe, communicate and collaborate.

The Art Institute was founded in 1879 as both a museum and a school for the fine arts at a critical time in Chicago when energies were focused on rebuilding after the Great Fire of 1871. It found its permanent home in 1893 and today is internationally recognized as one of two of the top fine-arts museums in the United States.

As stated on the Art Institute’s website, there is a focus to “create an antiracist culture” and to “encourage and advance a culture of hospitality, empathy and gratitude for each visitor, supporter and member of our staff.”

With that in mind, professionals from diverse fields, including medicine, law, public safety and occupational therapy, are reaping the benefits of the Art Institute’s Civic Wellness Workshops.

Sam Ramos, director of the Art Institute’s Gallery Activation, heads the Civic Wellness program. Ramos facilitates workshops for therapists, medical and law students, and physicians. The goal is to improve communication skills through observation of art in the museum. Participants have found new ways of thinking to improve one’s struggles with bias, race, objectivity, power and decision-making, Ramos said.

Jay Behl, Associate Dean for Student Affairs at Rush Medical, has worked with the museum for over 10 years, bringing medical students to the museum as part of a medical humanities elective. They usually spend about five sessions with Ramos at the Art Institute. Typically, on Friday afternoons, it is both fun and a learning experience, he said. The work is in learning to observe and develop empathy, which later translates into working with patients.

“’It’s the language of our patients,’ I always say. Patients don’t bring you symptoms. Patients don’t bring you blood panels. Patients bring you stories, and humanities is what holds us together,” Behl said. “If you don’t listen hard to people telling you a story, it is going to be hard to work with patients.”

A group engaging in a team building exercise in the museum’s galleries. | Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

The big takeaway is “really deep looking and questioning,” Behl said. It is important for students to pay close attention to patients’ facial expressions and how they are reacting. Students come to realize, in a gentle way, the inherent biases and assumptions they hold. For example, with one painting, they may ask, “Does the person look angry? What makes them appear angry? Is it their eyebrows? How the mouth is shaped?”

Behl also notes that the Art Institute is an amazing ambassador for the City of Chicago. Many students are not from Illinois, and this is a connection to the city where they will be taking care of patients.

The same holds true for police officers, lawyers, judges, and therapists, all professions in which empathy and communication are key.

Evguenia Popova is an assistant professor of occupational therapy at Rush University in Chicago. She has found that the work with Civic Wellness has helped students listen and observe with empathy.

“How do we ensure that our ‘objectivity’ does not make it such that we lose the personal and human connection with the people we work with?” Popova said.  

Popova said that Ramos challenges the students to understand their own biases based on a piece of artwork. She said sometimes students are hesitant to discuss the race or ethnicity they may see in a painting. Ramos, she said eloquently, connects that to real life.

Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

“If we are hesitant to talk about race in a painting that we are seeing, what does that tell us about how hesitant we are going to be to approach these topics with patients in our care?”

The exercises serve to bring humanity back into our objective descriptions, to make sure we stay connected with the clients we work with.

Certain assumptions fall away, Popova said. For example, if one thinks they are a kind person, they assume that they will be empathic to everyone they work with.

That, Popova said, is often not the case, as everyone has biases based on past experiences.

One painting, Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida by Ivan Albright, is a powerful image that evokes much discussion about mind and body. Popova said some describe this woman as joyful, others find she is in pain or uncomfortable. Some students believe she is impoverished. Others say she is well off.

“In just a small moment of discussion, very quickly it becomes so evident that all of us, looking at the same exact person, have such a different impression of their mood, their background, or their emotional state,” she said.

“Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida” by Ivan Albright | Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

The Civic Wellness program brings students into an unexpected space and challenges them to think in a new way. Many say they come away more curious, more open-minded and realize that people have complex interactions.

Popova said one student said, “This experience challenged me to go beyond thinking about first impressions.”

Another student shared that “without a little bit of subjectivity, a vital part of someone’s life or the situation can be misunderstood.”

How To Help:

By supporting the Art Institute you are helping ensure public access to the museum’s ever-growing permanent collection, world-class exhibitions and educational programs for visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Visit the Art Institute of Chicago online for more details.

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Susan Berger is a freelance journalist in Chicago and has written for the Washington Post, New York Times and Chicago Tribune. She was a 2021 CDC Fellow through the Association of Health Journalists, a National Press Foundation Fellow in 2019 to study vaccines and dementia.  She also has written for Health Magazine, National Post, Agence France-Presse, and CBC and Better Magazine.  Ms. Berger has appeared on the Today Show, NBC Nightly News, BBC World News, CNN, WGN-TV, WTTW-TV and on CBC Radio. Her work can be viewed at and you can follow her on Twitter @Msjournalist

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