Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

To increase support for public art, tie its meaning to humanity

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Siyin Chen, Rachel Ruttan, Matthew Feinberg

It turns out, any piece of artwork can be seen as sacred — even an amateur drawing — when it's presented as a means of connecting humanity to something bigger than itself, new research finds. And when people do that, they are more willing to put themselves out to ensure it’s protected.

“Art and sacredness have been documented in a lot of disciplines. They can be traced back to philosophy, art history, sociology,” says Siyin Chen, lead researcher and a doctoral student in organizational behaviour and human resource management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “We are showing what is making the art sacred. It can have a broader function that binds you to all of humanity, transcending your own community.”

Chen and her two co-investigators happened on this notion of “collective transcendence” as they searched for the mechanism that underpins people’s judgments about what makes something sacred when they have no other personal connection to it.

The researchers conducted nearly a dozen experiments using human subjects and a variety of artistic mediums, including music, sculpture, painting and interactive public park art. When asked which artworks they considered sacred and why, study participants frequently mentioned the Mona Lisa, and that such art was collectively meaningful, spiritual or held historical significance.

Some experiments showed that people could be influenced into judging something as sacred when its spiritual or historical qualities were emphasized, even when the “facts” were made up. In one experiment, the researchers showed participants a drawing by Chen of the other two researchers. But some participants were told either that “The Portrait,” was made by people more than 3,000 years ago or that it depicted followers of Buddhism and was spiritually significant. Both groups rated the drawing as more sacred compared to a control group, where only the drawing’s unique artistic qualities were pointed out. Participants in the spiritual and historical condition groups were also willing to donate more towards conserving the artwork when told it had been damaged.

The findings give clues for how to cultivate greater public support for the arts, says Chen, such as highlighting the historical and spiritual significance of artistic works in accompanying information at a gallery or in marketing materials.

The mechanism the researchers identified may even be transferable to other contexts, she says: “Can we make the environment collectively transcendent, leading to people protecting the environment even more? That would be an exciting future avenue for us to explore.”

The research was co-authored by assistant professor Rachel Ruttan and associate professor Matthew Feinberg, who are both in the organizational behaviour and human resource management area at the Rotman School.

The study appeared in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition.


Siyin Chen is a PhD candidate in organizational behaviour and human resource management at Rotman School of Management.

Rachel Ruttan is an assistant professor of organizational behaviour and HR. Her research interests include compassion and prosocial behavior, values, and moral judgment. 

Matthew Feinberg is an associate professor of organizational behaviour, and PhD coordinator of OBHRM area at Rotman. His research explores the underlying psychological processes that lead individuals to join together to form cohesive groups, organizations, and societies, with a particular focus on morality and political attitudes.