Walter Massey

Laboratory of Art

Air Date: February 7, 2015

Massey explores art and science as an interdisciplinary laboratory for human advancement.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. America’s premier hub of visual expression is the renowned Art Institute of Chicago, recently rated the best museum in the world.

And today we’re delighted to welcome the President of its prestigious school. Former Director of the National Science Foundation, President Emeritus of Morehouse College and former Chairman of Bank of America, Walter Massey has proven an inspiring leader across a great range of the American endeavor.

A Ph.D. trained physicist, Massey’s scientific background has uniquely informed the Art Institute’s Laboratory of Learning. His Presidency continues the decade’s long pursuit to impart the extraordinary work by the likeS of Edward Hopper to the next generation.

To start, I want to ask Walter Massey how he had infused his passion for science into the future of American art. Does art possess the same power to shape our public imagination in an age of new media? And what do he and the Institute consider the most important influence of art today?

These are the questions I hope my guest will grapple with during our program. And Walter Massey, thank you so much for being here.

MASSEY: Pleased to be here.

HEFFNER: What has been the most important aspect of your vision for the Art Institute, given your, your very rich background and legacy in science.

MASSEY: Well, I should say I did not come to the School of the Art Institute to try to impose a vision. I mean it was already a wonderful historic institution. We’ll be celebrating our 150th anniversary in 2016.

So I’m going into my fifth year. I think one of the things that I have been able to do in the area of arts and science… because of my own background in the sciences is to really accelerate what, what had been conversations about the connection between arts and science, the similarities, the differences, the way the two disciplines might … when the two disciplines might collaborate across boundaries, what might come out of that.

So I’ve been able to sort of push that forward. And I’m very pleased with that. I remember when I first arrived … interesting story … you didn’t mention I was also Director of the Argonne National Laboratory, where the, the first atomic reactor was developed by Enrico Fermi, who was the first Director. And my first day on the job at the School of the Art Institute, two faculty came and said they wanted to tell me about a project they were working on at the school. I said, “Okay, what is it?”. They were working on a project with Argonne. I said, “How (laugh), how could this happen? A school of art and design working with a research … national research laboratory? But they were.

So there’s already things going on, but now we have an on-going series called “Conversations on Art and Science” and what we do is we try to ask questions about what these relationships might be. We don’t want it to be a facile conversation. If you Google Arts and Science you will see hundreds of references to arts and science, some I think oversimplify, so we’re trying to explore the complexities of the relationship between these two areas.

HEFFNER: And not to simplify it, but do you think generally speaking that there’s a unified vision and humanitarian ethos among scientists and artists?

MASSEY: I’m not sure how to answer that. I think the, the primary … the arts and sciences are different. I want to start with that in terms, in terms of the way individuals in those areas look for what they call “truth”. Look for what they call answers to the questions they are seeking.

To me what similar is the way they … what motivates them to seek answers, they way they pursue … the, the passion with which they pursue those questions and the sort of commitment they have to their engagement with the arts or the sciences.

Both of these areas are very difficult. I mean it’s not easy to be an excellent artist (laugh) … I know what it takes to be even a run-of-the-mill physicist. So one needs passion and commitment and curiosity. And I think those … I know … I’ve seen those that they’ve cut across boundaries. So the, the interesting issues are then when you bring these two together are the things that neither discipline or people in these areas might think about or explore that now opens up new ways of thinking about the world. And the way …

HEFFNER: And we’ve shifted towards a very public intellectual orientation in the way we think about science and art and an interdisciplinary approach, something that you’re a proponent of.

MASSEY: We have, we have. That’s become, I think, fairly common now … sometimes again maybe it’s over simplified … to bring a physicist and an artist together and call it interdisciplinary, maybe multi-disciplinary, but actually trying to find ways for them to work together, to bring the best of, of both areas together is something that’s happened … happening more and more often.

In fact I’ve just attended a session last night, this is so timely, between students from the University of Chicago … many of whom are in the sciences and students from the School of the Art Institute and they were coming together to look for ways in which they might collaborate on joint projects. An these are graduate students.

I don’t think we would have seen as much of that as we see now when I was in graduate school. Because getting a Ph.D. in physics or any science is sort of total commitment and anything that distracts is going to be seen as ancillary and artists are in their studios.

The most difficult thing (laugh) I find about our students is to get them out of the studios.

HEFFNER: Or the laboratories.

MASSEY: Or the laboratory when you’re a scientist. So … the young people, these are not faculty … graduate students seeking out each other to try to find ways in which they can explore issues beyond their, their particular area of expertise. I think it’s, it’s a glimpse of the future.

HEFFNER: You said that artists and scientists do drive at a different end goal. A different achievement that they had in mind. But from what you’re saying, it sounds like the young generation is more socially minded, more, more focused on outcomes, if they’re going to do a laboratory experiment … if there’s a particular problem that they have in mind … they’re thinking about the larger implications for society.

MASSEY: I think that’s true. I can’t prove that. I think that’s … you find more of that now, just as you find in the sciences there, there’s more of a tendency to collaborate even in sciences. Because the problems now maybe require you to bring different disciplines. Let’s just say even in science, biology and physics and math and, and chemistry together and I think artists are collaborating also across different areas of painting, sculpture. But what I’m … I know at the School of the Art Institute they’re very committed to social practices, that is looking for ways in which art not only satisfies some aesthetic feelings of the needs, but how arts can change the world, how to affect it for the better.

And you were right … I do think that’s … you see more of that among young people across all barriers and in the sciences also.

HEFFNER: In an Op-Ed that you wrote, you challenged this old paradigm and you said that your current curriculum at the Institute …


HEFFNER: … is focused on an interdisciplinary approach to art, design and innovation and you continue, as an example, sculpture students are asked to take writing seminars. And from your experience, interfacing with the scientific community … are enough scientists taking those writing courses?

MASSEY: You’re seeing more of that, you are. Particularly at, again, our neighbor here, the University of Chicago …

HEFFNER: Where you were a faculty …

MASSEY: Where I … was also there for quite a while. Right. You’re seeing more of that. That students, graduates … undergraduates I think have always done that course.


MASSEY: In any school that has a liberal arts curriculum. And I should mention that even at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, we have a liberal arts program. Most people don’t know that, people perhaps don’t talk about it enough. But they take about a third to … a quarter to a third of courses in the liberal arts and the humanities and writing and so forth.

But we’re seeing that now even in the sciences where students are being urged … graduate students to go outside of their laboratory, they’re … beyond their computer and take .. engage in activities that are more connected with the, the world beyond the sciences.

HEFFNER: How has the definition of art evolved since you started?

MASSEY: I’m not an art historian (laugh). I’ve been in this … at the school for my fifth year, so the world … the world of the art is a new one to me in many ways, so I can’t comment on how it’s evolved over, over … historically.

But I’m not sure that from what I know and have learned I’m not sure there ever was a time when art was only seen to be viewed on the walls in museums. And, and it’s certainly not true now as I said earlier. With social practice, engagement with the community … is really what we teach at the school and I think you’ll find that generally true throughout the art, the arts community.

And this was something I didn’t appreciate as much as I do now, having … being in the school. I think many people may see students who are studying to be artists as people who are going to be isolated in a studio, starving, in the cold, passionately creating that work which they hope will be a masterpiece.

There are going to be some of those. But most of them really want to engage with the community. They see their art as a way of affecting change and a way of communicating issues which might be difficult to communicate in other ways.

We have a program in art therapy and one of the most moving exhibits that we have is when the clients … these are individuals who might have different disabilities or learning styles put on a show at the end. And you can see how dealing in art has changed their lives.

And we have a number of our faculty who work out in the communities, in local communities in Chicago working with youngsters and elderly people using art as a way of helping them deal with issues in their community.

HEFFNER: As an institution, the Art Institute and the School at the Art Institute seem uniquely poised to carry forward activism, community engagement leading to activism, leading to whatever our perception of progress is. Has the Art Institute been a unique instrument in your point of view in carrying forward the potential for social change?

MASSEY: One of the things I’ve learned being a President of an Institution is when you say, “Does this school” because the school is composed of faculty and students, so I speak on behalf of what I see them …


MASSEY: … doing. Not historically, the School of the Art Institute I think has been known for its excellence, of course, in the arts … the paining and drawing department is probably one of the oldest and best in the country.

But it’s also been known for its interdisciplinary curriculum … that’s what … there are other very good arts and design schools in the country, but if you asked about us, that’s us .. we are interdisciplinary and the other part of … it’s been a socially engaged institution.


MASSEY: I think that’s been true throughout its history in various ways. So now the ways in which individuals become socially engaged through their art, they have evolved over the years, now you will see it more in the students out in the community, faculty working out in the community in local organizations.

You mentioned the web, of course, more and more connections take place through social media and on the web also. But that’s something that seems to infuse the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the idea that art is not something … an isolated endeavor to be practiced by oneself alone, that it’s a way of engaging issues in the world and engaging them in a way that maybe only art can, can lead to a different kind of understanding.

In science you can understand issues in one way; art you can understand in a different way. Perhaps working together you can understand these issues even better.

HEFFNER: In terms of the social problems that a community like a large metropolis, like Chicago faces, but nationally, what’s your aspiration for the young people who are at the school?

MASSEY: I’ll answer that, but I want to start with a more fundamental …


MASSEY: .. what I think our students will take a way and no matter what endeavor you practice. First of all, I want them to be the very best they can be at what they do. Because I have a long standing philosophy that it’s, you can contribute more to society if you, yourself, are very well prepared. And I sort of went through this evolution as a Black physicist, younger, when I had to balance between being socially engaged and really mastering my field. And … so I want them … I don’t want them to get … our students …to begin to think they can go out and change the world just because they’re in art school.

They can help do things in the world better if they become better artist, a better designer and they are excellent masters at their craft.

Having said that (laughter) we want them to see that their art can make a difference. Not only to them, but to others. Every artist is not going to change the world and even working with a few people maybe can make a difference. But we … that’s what I think I would like them to see.

And I have office hours once a month … mostly for students, but anybody can come in. And so they would come by and speak to me about what they want to do. Where they see their art taking them and it’s very interesting to see …I think it is a sign of a, a new generation, that they really are already thinking about how to use their art. And I’m not sure that would have been … in society … I’m not sure that would have been true when I was in school.

HEFFNER: Well, I want you to …

MASSEY: Maybe when you were in school … (laugh)

HEFFNER: I want, I want you to put your scientific hat back on for a minute …


HEFFNER: … if you can. And, and think about the challenges we face in that discipline and in wider arena. What are some of the bench marks of progress that you haven’t seen in your lifetime in terms of how the scientific process can aid society, can cure disease, can uplift the spirit of our country and our people?

MASSEY: I think the contributions that science has made to society at large … so elegant … society at large is, even though we, we have issues of poverty and issues of health …

HEFFNER: Staggering.

MASSEY: … is healthier than we have been in the history of mankind. The … people who have food, shelter, water, housing is more than we’ve had in history of mankind, even in areas of great poverty.

So the, so the contributions of science to society I think we can pretty well establish across all areas. But we … what the challenge … sort of different challenge … the challenges to science, you’ve sort of got to understand the problems that we still have not mastered. Some of those have to do with the universe around us … how’s it evolving, where’s it going … large sort of meta issues.

The others, on the application side, how do we bring more quickly to bear the discoveries in science to areas of medicine. How do we use nanotechnology, which is happening, you know to understand and, and our bodies better and how do we use the areas of technology to, to improve the human condition. And that requires … scientists can’t do that alone …

MASSEY: … that requires scientists working with practitioners in all other areas …

HEFFNER: You can see the pace of life nano-second, by nano-second on the Internet in terms of how you access information, so I very much relate to what you’re saying. Is the scientific process that you are familiar with … and that students have undertaken over the course of the last half century … is it obsolete … is the, is the scientific process obsolete in, in conveying that truth to the greatest number of Americans in pursuit of more knowledge and in pursuit of cures for disease?

MASSEY: Well, the scientific process, as you call it … no, it’s not obsolete … this sort … the scientific methodology, right, there’s a commitment to honesty in what one pursues, a sort of a commitment to openness in sharing one’s results so that they can validated and a commitment to pursuing the problem until you can find a solution or at least reveal that there’s another path to follow. So, the process …


MASSEY: … doesn’t change.

HEFFNER: When, when I get … when I use the word obsolete … maybe I’ll parse my words ….


HEFFNER: … I’m really referring to the progress by which, which can be a glacial process of scholarship and publication and trials and we see now …

MASSEY: Oh, you mean the way scientists …

HEFFNER: I, I think the …

MASSEY: … are validated or trained.

HEFFNER: … I think the process, not in the methodology as much as how it interfaces with society. And, and can the speed at which that occurs pick up? Because a lot of people said, by 2014 or 2015 there would be a cure to X, Y and Z disease.

And I know you come from a less biological background than, than a physicists background. But that’s why I’m asking the question.

MASSEY: The progress and moving … the, the discoveries in science from the laboratory to the, to the benefits to society are speeded up, tremendously, almost exponentially even in my time …


MASSEY: … I mean the fact that you can … let’s take clinical trials. You now can do a … sort of computer base … you can’t do the clinical trials, but you can search for drugs, you can search for combinations using the vast computer power and find drugs, pharmaceuticals that can be pinpointed to particular maladies or diseases.

That would have been impossible 10, 10 years ago. And now we, we can construct new materials from the atomic level, we have on this table that you would have to go into vast chemical vats … so the pace is astounding. Maybe what is happening is that the public has been spoiled (laughter) to, to believe that, that there’s a cure for everything that can be found instantly.

Unfortunately, that’s just … that’s not true. Many diseases … there have been cures for many diseases, you know … 15 years ago, who would have thought AIDS, HIV would be under control to the degree that it is now. And so all of that’s happening, and I think it’s going to speed up. So, that doesn’t bother me so much, I thought you were asking another question about should we change the process by which scientists become scientists. That’s going to take time. It takes time to master things, if you want to master them …

HEFFNER: Well, your answer is definitely reassuring. Do correct me, you know, if this … if the pace is not only where it should be, but leading in the right direction.

MASSEY: Oh, it’s … it is. The University of Chicago, where I’ve been associated also for a number of years, just started its first engineering program, in the history of the school, never had one and it’s in molecular engineering and that means how do you build things on molecular, or even sub-molecular, atomic level up to create new material …biological, physical and so forth. That … the field didn’t exist, you know, ten years ago. In fact I think this may be the second one in the country. So the pace at which science is moving I think is mind-boggling.

HEFFNER: And before you go, I have one final question … in a terrific, terrifically engaging, engrossing speech that you gave at Washington University, one of your alma maters; you emphasized the importance of, of a liberal education. Why is liberal education still the most fundamental rule that the academy should abide by?

MASSEY: Well, it’s a product of … I’m a product of a liberal education so maybe I’m biased. But I really do believe that the foundation of the liberal, a liberal education that allows one to explore across fields, and I just explore … really have some grounding in different areas, the teachers warn that there are other possibilities in life. I came from a small, segregated town in Mississippi, without that I wouldn’t have even, even known probably some of the opportunities, not taught at a vocational level … intellectual, cultural activities …. I wouldn’t have known that they existed.

The other thing it does, I think that … inserted in that, that talk, is that it teaches you how to learn. And that’s something you can do for the rest of your life. And I think that’s one of the greatest values that any human being can have.

HEFFNER: Walter Massey, thank you so much for being here today.

MASSEY: Thank you … it went so fast … I enjoyed it.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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