On Creativity

Agnes Gund with Studio In a School student at PS123 in N.Y., photo © Mindy Best

In our time, there is a great deal of spirited talk about creativity. Where does it come from? How can society encourage creativity? How can citizens make creative contributions to our shared life? Too often, creativity has been identified with the singular, often isolated genius working alone in a garret or a lab, cut off from others. In this view, creativity has been identified with specially endowed individuals who are just not like the rest of us. But that portrait of the creative individual is not sufficient. Creative individuals gravitate toward activity, toward places where change is happening, where ideas are in discussion. They look for spark, not necessarily for solitude. They want to make contributions to the world, not merely express their own ideas. This portrait of creativity leads to very different ideas about where it comes about, how it happens, whether it can be made to happen.

According to my friend Professor Howard Gardner, creativity can be learned. He describes three kinds of “minds” that matter: First, the “disciplined mind” that masters information; second, the “synthesizing mind” that utilizes information; and third, the “creative mind”—innovative, bold, the mind able to start ideas and make change. For Gardner, schools are the agencies that can provide this discipline and synthesizing skill and, importantly, schools also free creativity.

At Studio in a School, a program I founded over forty years ago in the New York City public schools, and which now operates programs in five cities around the country, we have learned that creative classrooms grow creative people. Young people in Studio’s programs learn to confront and solve problems, to persist and iterate, and to express their way of seeing the world through art-making. They are developing the “habits of mind” that we associate with creative individuals.

In Studio’s programs, we have always hired professional, exhibiting visual artists to teach art. This is because artists are particularly well-suited to modeling an artist’s way of seeing and thinking to their students. In other words, they are helping to teach creativity. The artists who lead Studio in a School’s programs exhibit and foster creativity every single day in the work they do, inspiring children to dream and to dare.

It gives me a great deal of joy to visit Studio in a School classrooms and to experience young people engaged in the process of making art—to see their excitement as they pull their first print or learn to manipulate clay or mix colors for the first time. Every year, we host “Open Studios” where we ask well-known artists to visit a class. Last year, Jeff Koons joined a second-grade class on the Upper West Side and told them about a clay sculpture he made when he was their age. I thought it was truly special for him to recognize his own creative journey in their experience. I also remember being deeply moved when Teresita Fernández visited a class in the South Bronx. She told the students that they were all artists, that their point-of-view and way of seeing the world matters, that their creative expression matters. It was as if she was saying to the students, “Look, you matter.”

This is why I have devoted so much of my life to advancing equal access to quality arts education for children in New York City and beyond. Schools are not the only agencies that can foster creativity, and art is not the only subject through which a young person—or an adult—can develop the habits of mind we associate with creativity. But quality art instruction is uniquely suited to supporting these skills and unleashing a child’s creative capacity. The investment we make in art teachers and in making art a part of every child’s schooling represents an investment in our future and a commitment to raising a new generation of creative thinkers.


Agnes Gund

AGNES GUND is founder and chair of Studio in a School, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, and chair of MoMA PS1. A philanthropist and collector of modern and contemporary art, she received the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton in 1997.