Ragsdale headshot

Diane Ragsdale

Diane is currently attending Erasmus University in Rotterdam (in the Netherlands), where she is researching the impact of economic forces on US nonprofit regional theaters since the 80’s and working towards a PhD in cultural economics. For the six years prior to moving to Europe, Diane worked in the Performing Arts program at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where she had primary responsibility for theater, dance, and technology-related strategies and grants.  Before joining the Foundation, Diane served as managing director of the contemporary performing arts center On the Boards (Seattle, Washington) and executive director of a destination music festival in the resort town of Sandpoint, Idaho.  Prior work also includes stints at the Sundance Film Festival, the Seattle Film Festival, Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD USA, and Bumbershoot, Seattle’s Arts Festival.  She has worked as a consultant for both nonprofits and for profits, as adjunct faculty at Boise State University (in the Department of Theater Arts), and, early in her career, as an actor, director and independent producer. 

Diane is a frequent panelist, provocateur, or keynote speaker at arts conferences within and outside of the US (notable addresses include “Surviving the Culture Change” and “The Excellence Barrier”) and has contributed articles to several publications, including “Recreating Fine Arts Institutions,” which was published in the fall 2009 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.  She holds an MFA in Acting & Directing from University of Missouri Kansas City and a BS in Psychology and BFA in Theater from Tulane University.  In 2002, she attended the inaugural Executive Program for Nonprofit Leaders at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business (a program of National Art Strategies). 

Diane is engaged to Dutchman Jaap Boter, a scholar with posts at the University of Amsterdam and the VU University Amsterdam.  He holds an MA in Musicology and a PhD in Business Economics.  Needless to say, they have plenty to talk about.

Course Philosophy, Aims, and Methods - Spring 2015

Approaching Beauty (AKA aesthetics and business) aims to give business students the tools and encouragement to cultivate an aesthetic sensibility. This is neither an arts appreciation course nor a philosophy course. This is a practical course that takes as a foundational precept that art is integrally linked to the experience of things and of life itself.[1] It will combine discussions on the nature and function of beauty in today’s society (led by a range of scholars and artists); curated and self-directed aesthetic experiences; and the multimedia documentation of these experiences in a portfolio.

Howard Gardner defines beauty as the property of experiences and asserts that “to be deemed beautiful an experience must exhibit three characteristics. It must be interesting enough to behold, it must have a form that is memorable, and it must invite revisiting.”[2]  Gardner suggests that two educational implications follow from this assertion: (1) students should be encouraged to keep a portfolio of their experiences of beauty, aimed at tracing how those experiences have evolved over time; and (2) students should be encouraged to reflect upon the palpable reasons, or factors, that have lead them to consider one experience to be beautiful and another not.[3] Though Gardner is not specific about the form of such a portfolio, for the purposes of this class we are conceptualizing it as a multimedia (visual, auditory, and written) catalogue. Students will ask and answer (in their portfolios) in relationship to a variety of provocations and experiences a range of questions, including: Is it beautiful? Is it not beautiful? Why? On what basis am I forming this judgment? Students will also share their portfolio entries with each other and reflect upon where their ideas about beauty converge and diverge, and why.

Portfolio assignments will be aimed at giving students “bigger-than-me experiences”—to use the phrase coined by Sociologist Steven J. Tepper in a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Tepper (2014) asserts that we are living in a period in which institutions of learning need to provide courses that help students “realize that authentic growth comes as much from escaping as from discovering the self.”[4] Tepper makes a link between the rise in cultural activity focused on personal expression (what he calls me experiences) and several studies that indicate that empathy, compassion, moral reasoning and tolerance may be declining; ultimately, he makes a case that what is needed (both in the culture-at-large and at universities) is fewer me experiences and more bigger-than-me experiences. He distinguishes the two, writing:

"Me experiences" are different from "bigger-than-me experiences." Me experiences are about voice; they help students express themselves. The underlying question they begin with is, "What do I have to say?" BTM experiences are about insight; they start with, "What don’t I know?" Voice comes after reflection. Me experiences are about jumping into a project and making something—an idea, an artifact, a piece of media. BTM focuses on John Dewey’s notion of "undergoing"—making something happen in the world, which requires, first, a shift in our own subjectivity. We must anticipate problems, struggle with ideas, seek some resolution. It’s a process.

Fundamental assumptions of this class are that art teaches us to see what me might otherwise (choose to) not see; art confronts or holds together things that are inherently in tension, it embodies paradox and ambivalence, and it resists easy resolution; and the beautiful (in art and life) arises out of struggle. Because it is being offered through a business school, this iteration of the course is designed to bridge the aesthetic and business worldviews. It starts from a first principle that there is great value (for future business managers/leaders, in particular) in having the capacity to approach the world, or respond to it, aesthetically. Scholar of corporate finance, business economics, and economic philosophy John Dobson (2007) argues that we are living in an aesthetics business era in which corporations increasingly need to recognize the importance of such things as “harmony, balance, sustainability, aesthetic excellence, judgment, context, compassion, community, beauty, and art.”[5] Dobson suggests that aesthetic judgment is needed in business leaders, in particular, because they face the continual challenge of distinguishing between excellence and its material by-product, material wealth.[6]  Likewise, scholar of management and corporate responsibility, Sandra Waddock (2010) asserts that there are four leadership capacities that can be developed through the cultivation of an aesthetic sensibility (what she also characterizes as “better seeing”):

  • An intuitive grasp of the non-rational or observable elements of situations and decisions;
  • Creativity in imagining solutions or future action;
  • Understanding of relationships among elements in a system in a ‘design’ sense; and
  • The capacity for balancing conflicting elements with the greater good in mind.[7]

And in a similar vein, organizational behavior scholar Nancy Adler (2011) proposes that both “great leaders and great artists” demonstrate courage in three ways: (1) the fortitude and capacity to “see reality as it is”; (2) the daring to imagine new (beautiful) possibilities; and (3) the conviction to inspire others to shift their sights from current reality to imagining what is possible.[8]  While there is a wide range of literature that has informed the development of this course, it builds in particular on Gardner’s construct of the Beauty Portfolio; Tepper’s concept of “bigger-than-me experiences,” Waddock’s premise that aesthetic experiences can help leaders cultivate a different way of “seeing,” and Adler’s vision of “a leadership based more on hope, aspiration, innovation and beauty than on replication of historical patterns of constrained pragmatism.”[9] It also takes as a philosophical premise (following Dobson 2007) that there is a fundamental link between economics, ethics, aesthetics, and quality of life.


[1] Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. New York: Penguin Group/Berkeley Publishing
[2] Gardner 2011, p. xi.
[3] Ibid, p. xii.
[4] Tepper, S. (2014). Thinking ‘Bigger Than Me’ in the Liberal Arts. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/15/2014. Available at http://chronicle.com/article/Thinking-Bigger-Than-Me-in/148739/.
[5] Dobson 2007, p. 46.
[6] Ibid, p. 45.
[7] Waddock 2014, p. 140.
[8] Adler 2011, p. 210
[9] Ibid, p. 20