What happens when we look at art?

What happens to all of us when we look at art?

Last week I was lucky enough to spend time at the Frye Museum in Seattle with leading academics, teachers, creatives and artists from around the world. We were there with the VTS team (the creators of Visual thinking Strategies), who have been working on this question for several decades. 

What they found and have proven through some beautiful research, is that looking at developmentally appropriate art with the right support makes us emotionally, intellectually and socially stronger. Here's how: 

VTS facilitator opening discussion of a new work of art. 

VTS facilitator opening discussion of a new work of art. 

Language acquisition

By looking at art in a group and talking about what we see i.e. naming, listing, sorting and interpreting we give each other new ways and vocabulary to describe the world around us.

The VTS team shared the results of numerous studies that tracked children’s developmental progress over many years as they looked at art. We saw how this program literally kick started reading, particularly for students whose first language is not English.

Empathy, tolerance and stamina

Looking at a works of art and talking about what we see allows us to see the world through one another’s eyes. With more practice in doing this we build the skills that allow us to hear, acknowledge and express acceptance of different ways of seeing an image, thing or situation. To do this we also need to sit with an image for a while - this act itself builds stamina and focus in an increasingly visual world in which we skim images for information at great speed.


Critical thinking skills

With repeated "eyes on canvas" time in group discussions you see a child’s critical thinking skills develop in ways that move them beyond their ‘age defined developmental stage’. To prove this we poured over transcripts of VTS led conversations about art. We got to code (using the VTS schema) each idea everyone brought to the group. We found a direct correlation between more art viewing and more open-ended, speculative language as viewers moved beyond concrete or right and wrong answer thinking. We also saw students backing up their thoughts with evidence based on their observations of the art. With time members of the group were also consciously acknowledging and building on one another’s ideas. Incredibly, some art viewing 10 year olds were showing greater complexity in their critical thinking skills than adults with little exposure to art.



The other wonderful thing that all we sort of knew and got concrete evidence for, is that when you look at art together your group becomes a “meaning making community” in which each indivduals comments or contribution of an idea about the work of art enhances the group understanding of it. This builds a democratic and safe environment for sharing ideas and a strong sense of community.

This can be helpful in so many settings, one participant in our group had politically disparate representatives from Greece and Macedonia around a table talking things through whilst looking at art together. Another had a large multinational company’s CEO lead a discussion on a work of art about which he said, “ this is amazing, I thought I knew my teams and how they worked together, but now I am actually seeing the whole picture”.

With all this evidence about the benefits of looking at art I am now wondering if the question should be what happens to us all when we don’t look at art?


More good news: it only takes 10 experiences of 30 mins over 365 days for 3 years for looking at art to have a direct, positive impact on growth!

Even better news: we have created an art explorer kit Take a Closer Look at Art that you can use to keep track and encourage your family to explore a wide range of art together! This will be on sale soon so you can dip in over the long summer vacation period.