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The Art of Perception

by Alexa Buffington

Tags: Art, Forensic Science,

art of perception

Can the power of art change the way you do your job and see the world around you?

Countless law-enforcement officials, medical professionals and business executives across the country are learning to sharpen their observation, perception and communication skills from an unorthodox teacher. 

The Art of Perception,” is a groundbreaking, museum-based seminar using fine art analytical methods to strengthen general observation skills. Founder Amy Herman created the program over 12 years ago while working at the Frick Collection in New York City. She intended to enhance medical students’ observation skills with patients.  

The program’s popularity quickly boomed and soon after Herman contacted the New York City Police Department to pitch the same idea. Met with positive curiosity, she began teaching “The Art of Perception” to an array of police officers from industry veterans to rookies completing officer training.

Over the years, Herman has taught members of the FBI, CIA, Navy SEALs, the Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security. She will be speaking at the Dole Institute of Politics in Lawrence, Kansas on May 1 about her work and its impact.

Utne Reader spoke with Herman about her experience and her upcoming visit to the University of Kansas campus. Below is a transcript of our interview.

Utne Reader: Why do you think this idea is relevant to the general public? What can they get out of the program or how can they use the information in their daily lives?

Amy Herman: After conducting this program for over 12 years across the professional spectrum, I have concluded that astute observation and perception is a work in progress for all of us. We never really master those skills. The same is true for effective communication. We need to be able to communicate what it is that we observe ranging from personal safety issues to the body language of our children.

UR: How have you adapted “The Art of Perception” program over the years?

AH: The program has evolved not only to meet the objectives of different professional groups but also to apply to participants’ personal lives. I have expanded the range of art works that I include in the program to make it more accessible and more visually interesting—I use painting, sculpture, photography, as well as contemporary art in addition to the Old Masters and everything in between. I have also tailored the program to conduct special presentations focusing on diversity, inclusion, leadership, and bias.

UR: Did you have any idea how groundbreaking this idea would be when you first began?

AH: Not at all. I started the program for medical students based on an existing program at Yale Medical School. When I adapted it for law enforcement professionals (police, FBI, CIA, military), I had no idea there would be so many interesting and relevant applications that would spring from that collaboration.

UR: Has your work broken any cases or assisted in major developments?

AH: It is interesting that I am called in to help solve some problems but often I am not told specifically what they are. In others, like the Intelligence Community, the program is used to foster creativity in fields where broad thinking and creative applications had not been previously encouraged. Many law enforcement agencies incorporate the program for newly promoted agents in the hope that it will improve communication to help solve cases on an ongoing basis. I am frequently asked to address the issues of preconceived attitudes, biases, and prejudices in a number of fields.

UR: Do you think the increase in technology use has affected our ability to make authentic observations?

AH: Absolutely. I watch people all the time and consistently notice that people are so absorbed in their technology—specifically their personal devices—that they fail to see what is right in front of them. I call it “hiding in plain sight” and it happens ALL THE TIME in the professional world and causes real problems. While technology can give us many answers, a pair of human eyes is, I believe, the best observational tool we have.

UR: Where do you see the program heading in the future?

AH: Part of the wonderful challenge of teaching this program is I really never know what is around the corner. I get inquiries from all over the country and all over the world about new applications and uses of the program. It keeps my brain in gear all the time and I am always looking at new works of art that can be used.

UR: How would you go about expanding your message?

AH: I am thrilled that I am writing a book about my work with The Art of Perception that will be published in May 2015. So many people have said, “you need to write this down,” so that is what I am doing. The overarching message is that the power of art can change not only the way people do their jobs but also see the world around them. Thus, the concept applies not only to first responders, medical professionals, and teachers, but also to parents, heads of corporations, and children.

UR: For instance, do you see other professions benefiting from this way of thinking?

AH: Yes, I have been contacted by CEO’s of multinational companies, heads of scientific research and development laboratories, as well as librarians and special educations teachers.

UR: Have you been met with any resistance from those traditionally trained in their specialized profession?

AH: There are always a few skeptics in every group, especially if the session is mandatory. It is particularly gratifying to watch even those who question the relevance of analyzing works of art realize that perfecting communication of what we observe is really what the program is about. Those initial skeptics often become the most vociferous and enthusiastic participants.

UR: What intrigued you about the Dole Institute that made you want to offer your training here (and at KU in general)?

AH: I was honored to be invited to the Dole Institute to conduct and discuss the program for and with many of the different communities at KU. The Institute’s archive presents such a rich and interesting resource that can serve as the catalyst for presenting the program. It also provides a unique venue to talk about the government’s vision to bring this untraditional program to so many areas of service throughout the country.

Herman will present “Innovation in Plain Sight: Transforming Our National Security Landscape with Museum Collections” at 7:30 p.m. on May 1 at the Dole Institute of Politics. Her book, Think Again, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in March 2015.  

Image courtesy Matti Matilla, licensed under Creative Commons.