With the “slow art movement,” the art world, too, is taking stock of how a broader cultural bias toward speed and mass consumption has informed museum experiences.
Studies suggest that the average museumgoer looks at an artwork for less than 30 seconds. And with crowds that seem to push you from one piece to the next, overwhelmingly large exhibitions, and a dismal lack of seating options, museum spaces sometimes seem to encourage this “more is more” ethos. But on “Slow Art Day” every April, museums around the world offer programming that guides visitors in looking more patiently.
This year’s Slow Art Day — April 10 — comes at a time when museums find themselves in vastly different circumstances. Some are just reopening. Others have been closed for more than a year. Many are facing unprecedented layoffs or embroiled in controversies over diversity. But across the board, they are grappling with questions about who feels welcome in their spaces. At first, the slow art movement might seem rooted in meditation and mindfulness, but at its core, it is concerned with museum accessibility.
Although no one would hesitate to watch a TV show because they haven’t studied enough television history, many people think they do not know enough art history to look at art. For Linnea West, an educator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Slow Art Day lowers some of the barriers by making the case that there’s something to be gained simply from looking.
“You don’t have to come to a work with knowledge you read in a book to get a lot out of it,” she says.
At Slow Art Day events, museums generally ask visitors to look at five objects for 10 minutes each — enough time, often, to keep them looking a little longer. But the practice varies. Jennifer Roberts, an art history professor at Harvard University and a proponent of slow art, has her students look at an individual artwork for three hours. “Approach it as if you were a visitor from another planet with no prior knowledge of the configuration or content of earthly art,” she tells them.
Phil Terry, founder of “Slow Art Day,” which provides resources for museums hosting slow art programs, has become hooked on slow looking. He has spent a collective 10-plus hours looking at Pieter Bruegel’s “The Harvesters” and talks about tiny details in the work — the blue dot of the moon in the upper left corner — like little-known spots in a city he visits frequently. But Terry, a businessman by day, wasn’t always drawn to art. It all started on a quiet day at an empty museum in 2008, when, he said, he “decided to act like [he] was in [his] own living room” and spend an hour with “Fantasia” by Hans Hofmann.
Terry is concerned by those commonly cited statistics revealing how little time museumgoers spend looking at art, but more upsetting is that most people don’t feel welcome in museums at all. “They’re looking for zero seconds,” he says.
“Part of [Slow Art Day’s] mission is to make the art experience more inclusive by creating a context where people will include themselves,” he says. “For people who don’t feel like the traditional Western museums are designed for them, it gives them a way into the art experience. If you just slow down and look at any kind of art, you discover that you can build a relationship with it.”
Slow art can also be humbling. As the detail of a painting or sculpture comes to the surface, so, too, do your own biases and blind spots.
During some recent slow looking at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), I found the key to understanding Sarah Bernhardt’s sculpture “After the Storm” in such subtle details as the clenched fingers of a seemingly limp figure and the herculean neck muscles of an older woman. After an hour spent in the cosmic, yellow world of Mildred Thompson’s “Magnetic Fields,” I noticed the alarmingly bright canvas subside into alternating tones of restraint and exclamation.
“It’s sort of like getting to know a person,” says Addie Gayoso, an educator at NMWA who introduced slow art programming to the museum eight years ago. “We have certain initial preconceived notions or assumptions, but then once we spend time with them, we realize their depth.”
For Gayoso, Ursula von Rydingsvard’s abstract sculpture “Thread Terror,” which was included in a 2019 NMWA exhibition, at first seemed uninteresting — a chunk of wood she’d typically walk by. But as she spent time with it, she began to think about Von Rydingsvard’s labor-intensive practice, which involves manipulating wood with different saws. By the end, Gayoso was enamored, and still thinks about when she might see it again.
While looking at Michelangelo’s “David” for three hours, Terry experienced a similar perspective shift. He imagined all that he coudn’t see: the hands on the marble, chipping away; the workshop it was made in; the ways the world was different at the time.
“There were no antibiotics. People died very young. There’s no television, no radio, no streaming,” he says, wondering aloud. “How did people experience beauty?”
At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, educators train medical students in slow looking to hone their observational skills, but as West notes, it’s not just about noticing small physical details that might inform a diagnosis.
Whether you’re looking at a contemporary abstract work or the most lauded classical sculpture in history, slow art creates space for empathy.
“It’s about being able to imagine another person and what they’re going through,” West says. “It’s about being able to step outside of yourself.”
For a full list of Slow Art Day participants, visit slowartday.com/2021-venues.