Amy Whitaker, the wise (wo)man helping the blind men see an elephant
Perhaps you've learned about the famous Indian parable, The Blind Men and an Elephant. Or listened to Natalie Merchant sing from her album, Leave Your Sleep / Leave Your Supper. Or read the poem by John Godfrey Saxe, The Blind Men and the Elephant. In all of these manifestations, the basic storyline is the same: all blind men who encounter a large creature will have different perspectives of the creature based on what part of the creature they touch, and to truly "see" the creature for what it is, sharing perspectives is key. For Amy Whitaker, Assistant Professor of Visual Arts Administration at New York University, this lesson — bringing disparate parts together to see the big picture — drives her mission in life.
You may know Amy Whitaker as the author behind Art Thinking (Harper Collins), Museum Legs (Hol Art Books), and so many other fascinating articles in Hyperallergic, the Wall Street Journal, and Artsy, to name a few. Or as the researcher behind exploiting blockchain technology for artists. Or the public speaker at TEDx Conferences, university orientations, and other leadership conferences. But, the Amy Whitaker that I know is a teacher, inspiring a future in which we benefit from blending the world of business with the world of art.
Amy was not always a teacher, but given the opportunity while enrolled in art school at University College London's Slade School of Fine Art (after having already earned an MBA from Yale University's School of Management), she was instantly hooked and flourished as a result. Like the wise man who helps the blind men in the The Blind Men and an Elephant, Amy is a pioneering teacher who encourages her students to develop perspective awareness. Those of us who have had the pleasure of learning from Amy — whether in the classroom or over coffee (like me!) — are all the more enriched and able to cultivate creativity, even in the most fixed of environments, because of it.
This January, while in the midst of working on a new book, Amy takes a break to share with Superstars of Culture a bit about her superstar role as an educator of the future. Here's a condensed version of what she has to share:
After curating your own unique path and bridging the unlikely pair of art and business through your studies at the University College London's Slade School and Yale's School of Management, you immediately set to work to teach artists about business and business leaders about art. What has been your goal with regards to teaching others?
My goal then, as now, is to include people in conversations from which they are disenfranchised. Many people feel excluded from conversations about art, and many artists feel unacknowledged in conversations about business. I hope for artists to be able to approach business on their own terms, as a design medium unto itself. I often say to artists, paraphrasing John F. Kennedy’s famous quotation “Ask not what economics can do for you but what you can do for economics.” What I mean by that is that artists can invent new structures that make the finances actually work for them—that support the work itself. I recognize the generosity, risk and labor asked of artists, and want to dignify it with collectively designed financial structures that offer better support.
In your opinion, why are teachers important? What role do they play in society?
I find teaching to be a lifelong craft, one that probably starts with a desire to impart information and ends with a vulnerability and strength to just stay present and guide students in teaching themselves. I am lucky to have had amazing teachers (and to have grown up in a family of them). My favorite quotation on teaching comes Adam Gopnik, writing about Kirk Varnedoe, chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art and former college professor who died in 2003: “A guru gives us himself and then his system; a guide gives us his subject, and then ourselves” (New Yorker, 2004). Right now, as information becomes so much more accessible, teaching helps us hold space for synthesis, and for the rigor and gumption to ask the most important questions and to try to answer them well.
What inspired you to become a professor at NYU? What about being a Professor of Visual Arts Administration has been most invigorating and fulfilling?
One of the greatest parts of university life is the library. Librarians are the heart and mind of research institutions. It is breathtaking (if occasionally cobbled together, owing to academic publishing’s business models) the access to knowledge that libraries have—not just the books but the people. I have a vantage point of all that from within a working art school – the Department of Art and Art Professions at NYU’s Steinhardt School. I get to go to faculty meetings with working artists as well as colleagues in the professions, and to teach what administration means in the arts from the vantage point of their being a painting studio down the hall. That rootedness in art—and the chance to collaborate with colleagues across the university and across the field—are the best parts of my job.
The world needs more people like you, thinking about the "middle space between creativity and commerce." How can we learn more about your philosophy?
The 2016 book Art Thinking is the deepest dive into these questions of how to integrate our creative and practical selves. I believe that everyone is an artist, but also that we live in the midst of one of the most complex market economies of all time, and so everyone is a businessperson too. I think that art is a proxy for independent thinking and that independent thinking is the greatest lever of power in any democracy. I see the intersections of creativity and commerce as inherently political—having to make personal decisions about how our work interacts with markets. At the same time, I see some of the intersection of creativity and commerce as structural: If you are making a work of art in any field you are not going from A to B but inventing point B. You therefore have to invest time and resources in a project before you know if you will get anything back. You sometimes have to give all of you have, and a little bit more, before you maybe succeed. There is dignity in trying, and skill in structuring those risks as solidly and safely as you can. Taking the risk is question of artistry or humanity. Structuring it well is a question of economics.
Superstar Snapshot: Amy Whitaker
Superstar strength: teacher-tastic
Superstar secret talent: "chameleon-like ability to travel between fields"
Superstar noteworthy quote: "if you are making a work of art in any field you are not going from A to B but inventing point B."
(photo credits: Sheiva Rezvani)