Elizabeth Nosek ’23 and Richard Minor ’23

On the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, a small class from Christ College — the Honors College visited the Brauer Museum of Art to conduct a special examination of the pieces on display. This was, however, no art class, and they were not looking for techniques, styles, or particular artists. This was the Economy in Arts class, and they were looking for themes of recession, market instability, capitalism, and government intervention. The class, led by Sara Gundersen, Ph.D., IEF program director and associate professor of economics, was living Valparaiso University’s goal of interdepartmental cooperation by exercising the ideas from their classroom in a unique way.

“I always tell my students that economics is everywhere,” Professor Gundersen says. “I think it helps them internalize the concepts. They’ll graduate from, say, micro-economics and maybe they’ll remember supply a little, but with the visuals I feel they learn at a deeper level. Plus, they learn better when they’re enjoying themselves.”

Professor Gundersen came across the idea of incorporating the arts into her economics classes after hearing a keynote speech from Purdue Professor Michael Watts, who had done significant work arguing for the relationship between the disciplines. Inspired by the idea, she set out to incorporate the arts into her own microeconomics class at Valparaiso University. 

“It was a big risk I was taking, I thought. It turned out to be fantastic,” Professor Gundersen says. “These students don’t really go to art museums that often, so having the pieces to look at was exciting. I told them to find an economic concept in a piece of art and present it, and they said that helped them understand economics more.” 

Several years after combining art and economics herself, at a colloquium discussion on how best to utilize the Brauer Museum, Professor Gundersen was approached by Anna Stewart, PhD., assistant dean of the Christ College, with the idea of doing a dedicated art and economic course for the honors program.  Professor Gundersen agreed, and began teaching in spring of 2019.

Since then, the class has undertaken several projects examining the impact of economics on art and vice-versa. One assignment has students identifying an artist and assessing how their economic situation influenced their art, such as in the cases of Vincent Van Gogh, Kendrick Lamar, and Ice Cube. Another tasked them with applying concepts of supply and demand, scarcity, and the unpredictability of factors like current trends and popularity by appraising the museum’s artwork. 

Arguably the most unusual assignment, however, is the interpretation of artwork based on economic principles. 

“This is going to be interesting, I thought,” says Jonathan Canning, director of the Brauer Museum of Art. “Professor Gundersen brought in a couple of classes, one I understood right away, because they were going to appraise a work of art. That was within my experience. But the other one, which was really fun, was for them to come in and not interpret the art the way I studied, but to see if it expresses an economic theory. I had no idea how that was going to work, so I stood back quietly and was amazed with what people came up with.” 

Ro Mitchell ’23 and Meshach Melton ’24

The interpretations have been creative and varied. Thomas Alexander Harrison’s Les Amateurs, wherein a male and female are fishing on a small boat, with the male leaning over and causing the craft to tip, was interpreted as the government tipping the economy through tariffs. 

Sometimes the government can play a dual role in a single piece. John August Swanson’s three-part presentation of the story of the Good Samaritan was interpreted as the merchant representing the economy, his attackers as taxation, and the Good Samaritan himself as subsidies and other government interventions to revive the economy. 

Other interpretations did not involve the government at all. A piece of Japanese scroll painting depicts one man pouring liquid into the bowl of another, who is eagerly drinking it, and was interpreted by the class as corporate consumerism. A landscape depicting a beach with one boat lodge in the sand and another sailing through the water was seen as small businesses and Amazon respectively during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I don’t know that I could ever look at something and interpret it through that lens, but some of them were so creative and startling that I will definitely remember them now,” Director Canning says. 

For students, the exercise has helped them apply their classroom knowledge in new and interesting ways. 

“I’m an economics major, so this was something where I got to see economics in a different lens,” Jeffrey Green ’23 says. “It’s been super interesting and has expanded my mind both economically and artistically.”

For others, like meteorology majors Elizabeth Nosek ’23 and Richard Minor ’23, finding the details that let them contextualize the pieces is what makes the endeavor interesting. 

“You have to look and see not just art, but pair up the time with what’s present in the picture and how it’s portrayed,” Richard says. “Darker colors can imply worse times when it comes to the economy, and what they’re wearing can help tell you what’s going on in the picture and what the artist was trying to portray at the time.”

“Examining art for economic concepts is really important, because if you can give a historic context to when a painting was made, you can try to figure out what the artist was going for,” Elizabeth says. 

Jeffrey Green ’23

Economics students are not the only ones to have given unusual interpretations of the pieces in the Brauer. According to Professor Gundersen and Director Canning, meteorology students have examined the landscape paintings to deduce weather patterns, and many of the exhibitions can be interpreted for their commentary on man’s impact on the natural world. Professor Gundersen says that bringing these ideas to a location like the Brauer Museum is an important part of the University’s views on learning.

“It’s our mission to teach everyone in a very holistic way,” she says. “It’s not just giving them the facts, it’s helping them see how everything is integrated. It’s definitely a uniquely Valpo thing that really enhances what they get out of these classes.” 

To learn more about the Brauer Museum, its exhibitions, and its hours of operation, visit valpo.edu/brauer-museum-of-art/.