Gaining New Perspectives on Business by Looking at Art, Michigan Ross BBAs Visit the Detroit Institute of Arts


A visit to an art museum may seem like an unusual field trip for undergraduate business majors, but that's what sophomores from the Ross School of Business did as a fun, action-based learning experience during student orientation this year.

During the trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Michigan Ross BBAs were asked to reflect on the role of business and the arts in society as well as consider their own leadership styles. The trip also allowed students to reconnect with their classmates and encouraged them to meet new ones, along with building their Ross community by networking with the upperclassmen and staff who served as volunteers. 

The main motivation behind taking the students to the DIA was for them to see Diego Rivera's “Detroit Industry” murals in person and learn about the murals' significance to the business world and society at large. Painted in the early 1930s, the 27 panels that make up the world-famous murals depict Detroit's industry and technology from the era, including Ford's Rouge River Plant, and offer a critique of the political and social realities of capitalist enterprise. 

“Our mission as a business school is to have a positive difference in the world, but the murals illustrate that industrial development can have both positive and negative impacts on society,” explained Cathy Shakespeare, Arthur Andersen Professor of Accounting and faculty coordinator for the BBA 200 course. “By using the murals, our goal is to help students understand that businesses exist within society and provide them with a different way to think about issues through framing of arts.”

Shakespeare said the Rivera murals will be used as a springboard for the rest of BA 200, with assignments and discussions referring back to the images and messages portrayed, such as how technological innovation is again reshaping both the auto industry and people's daily lives.

While at the DIA, the Ross sophomores also received their first assignment in the course. The students were challenged to find an artifact (a painting, sculpture, etc.) in the museum that spoke to their leadership style and who they want to be as a leader; take photos of it, and then write a story describing why they chose the artifact and its meaning to them. 

“Storytelling and analogy are powerful leadership vehicles of connection and relationship building,” Cheri Alexander, chief innovation officer Executive Education and faculty at Michigan Ross, told the students. “Great leaders tell stories because they paint pictures in other people's minds, helping them to better remember what the speaker is trying to get across, thus allowing them to understand and move forward. This assignment gives our students the opportunity to practice telling stories and showcase their creativity.”

It didn't take long for Phoebe Block, BBA '22, to find her object: an oil on canvas painting called “Girl With Plant” by Fernand Léger. 

 “Personal growth is really important to me and the plant reminded me of growth,” explained Block. “As a leader, I hope to display personal growth as well as encourage growth in others.” 

After growing up near the DIA, and visiting many times, Block said the assignment and experience learning about the murals on this trip already had her thinking about art and business differently. 

“I've spent a lot of time looking at art, but not connecting it to business,” she said. “Now I have a new perspective on something I've grown up with.” 

That message was echoed by her classmate Jack Boekeloo, BBA '22. “This has taught me to look beyond what I see on the surface,” said Boekeloo, gazing upon the murals in the Rivera Courtyard. “And with new learning comes new perspectives into things, and I'm excited to see how my perspectives on business continue to grow from what I've experienced here.” 

The BBA students' trip to the DIA was supported by the Thomas C. Jones Initiative for Innovation in Undergraduate Education

Image courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts
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