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Beauty and the Business School

By Wisconsin School of Business

April 8, 2015

Why study beauty in a business school? Because there is a real value in having business managers and leaders who have an understanding of beauty, an aesthetic sensibility that will inform their decision-making process, inspire innovation, promote leadership skills, and encourage a sense of corporate responsibility. That’s the thinking behind a new course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Wisconsin School of Business, being led by Artist in Residence Diane Ragsdale.

In developing the business class, “Approaching Beauty”, Ragsdale reviewed a growing body of research examining the links between beauty/aesthetics and leadership and business management. While many business schools now introduce the topic of aesthetics to students within the context of product and services design and design thinking, this class is aimed at developing broader leadership skills. Ragsdale is particularly interested in the strand of scholarship that suggest a relationship between cultivating an aesthetic sensibility, or relationship to beauty, and becoming a more responsible, courageous, and visionary leader.

“There is great value for future business managers and leaders in having the capacity to approach the world, or respond to it, aesthetically,” says Ragsdale. “The most compelling justification I found for a class in beauty is that it develops leaders with moral imagination—leaders with the vision to imagine beautiful solutions to local and global problems, as well as the courage and moral character to do the right thing for its own sake.”

Ragsdale is the Wisconsin School of Business’ first Artist in Residence at the School’s Bolz Center for Arts Administration, a knowledge center that supports the Wisconsin MBA program in arts administration. While open to MBA students, the course was offered to undergraduate business students.

The course aims to give business students the tools and encouragement to cultivate an aesthetic sensibility. Strictly speaking, it is neither an arts appreciation course nor a philosophy course. It combines discussions on the nature and function of beauty in today’s society, led by a range of scholars and artists; curated and self-directed aesthetic experiences in art, nature, and everyday life; and the documentation of these experiences in a portfolio.

Sherry Wagner-Henry, director of the Bolz Center at the Wisconsin School of Business, said that Ragsdale’s class is part of a larger effort to broaden the conversation about what it means to teach business.

“A person’s approach to beauty intersects with how they think, their capacity to lead, and their ethical sensibility. Those are core elements of a business education so talking about beauty in this class and finding ways to continue that conversation going forward represents our innovative learning approach that will give our students a competitive advantage,” said Wagner-Henry.

Ragsdale holds an MFA in acting and directing and is currently working toward a Ph.D. in cultural economics at Erasmus University in the Netherlands. She previously oversaw theater and dance grantmaking at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, served as managing director of On the Boards, a Seattle-based contemporary performing arts center, and worked at several music and film festivals in a variety of roles.