VTS was created by Philip Yenawine, Director of Education at the Museum of Modern Art, and Cognitive Psychologist Abigail Housen in the late '80s.1 It's been refined and honed over the years, and its application has grown from creating a framework for talking about art to creating a framework for sharing ideas and constructing insight as a group. It's being taught all over the world, and FCAT is fortunate to have an experienced facilitator on our Design and Marketing team, and to know just the right person to help introduce us to the practice.
To facilitate a VTS session you need to embrace three specific questions; "what's going on in this picture," "what do you see that makes you say that," and "what more can we find." This isn't an opportunity to phrase the questions in one's own words because each word has been carefully chosen. I know this because I tried and failed. The hardest part, however, isn't the questions, it's what happens next, and therein lies the insight I found by stumbling.
Facilitators need to quiet their minds, and egos, and listen for comprehension so they can rephrase what a participant just said. The rephrasing indicates that the participant has been heard and gives them a chance to correct the facilitator's statement. As an aside, when a facilitator has advanced skills in art history and curation (as ours did), hearing them restate your observation is a delight ... you feel so smart! Next, the facilitator needs to keep this observation suspended in their mind, like a juggler, as they listen to new observations, so they can make linkages and mention common themes if they occur. If that all sounds mentally exhausting, I can affirm that it is. That was my first and indelible insight—I needed to learn how to listen for comprehension, and to quiet my ego.
I'm not the first to suggest that we need a new model of leadership, one that departs from the "command and control" style inherited from the military. To observe a VTS facilitator is to observe what the future of leadership should look like. Let's think of a leader as a facilitator, as someone who is listening to understand and to restate for comprehension and synthesis, and as someone who is quieting their ego and encouraging their team, all of them, to feel comfortable making observations grounded in visual evidence.
So, it doesn't matter whether you're discussing a painting, an MRI scan, or an org chart, leading like a VTS facilitator will bring more insights, sometimes startling, from more people, more quickly. I think that's worth working towards.
Will Reed is FCAT’s Head of Design.