Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Slowing Down to Focus on the Art

I cited the international Slow Art Day in TrendsWatch2015 as one effort to encourage people to bring leisurely attention to bear on the museum. As Slow Art Day 2015 is fast approaching—it’s on April 11—I tracked down two museums that have participated in the past and will do so again this year. In today’s post, Michelle Moon, Assistant Director for Adult Programs at the Peabody Essex Museum, and Celeste Fetta, Chief Educator, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, answer a few questions about their experiences with the event.

Michelle and Celeste, how did Slow Art Day come to your attention?

"Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile." Courtesy of the
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.
Michelle: At the Peabody Essex Museum, we believe strongly that art experiences can be deeply transformative, so I’m always on the lookout for unexpected ways to draw people into moments of deeper connection with artwork. When Slow Art Day launched, I understood its potential in part because I’ve been involved in the “slow movement” for nearly ten years as a chapter co-founder and regional governor for Slow Food USA. It’s led me to appreciate how “slow” experiences become opportunities for more meaningful and mindful interactions with our surroundings. I like the way it empowers individual interpretation in non-didactic, open-ended discussion.

Celeste: VMFA is in the midst of a transition for our gallery practice—moving away from strictly delivering information to observation, interaction, dialogue, and discussion in order to engage the visitor in ways that are suited to his or her learning style and/or needs. About three years ago, Slow Art Day found us through a community volunteer and former instructor who organized a group of friends to participate. It’s a natural fit to our revised philosophy of spending time with a work of art to afford a natural pathway of discovery. Now we now offer classes that focus on one work of art for an hour, approaching the piece from a variety of perspectives, and that leads to fruitful discussions.

How has the event worked out?

Michelle: Each and every person who has participated has found it to be transformative, a little oasis of absorption in an otherwise busy culture. Our groups have had some great conversations, and in a society as fragmented as ours, its potential to connect strangers over their reactions to artwork is quite moving. The idea itself has also been a catalyst for thinking about how to bring slow looking experiences to museums on a more regular basis.

But participation has been wobbly - we started with 11 people the first year, then 8, then a low of 3, and last year 6 (including me and my husband). I've experimented with different approaches to running the event, including offering a suggested itinerary of items to view, creating a guide to slow looking, and having an external coordinator. This year, we're going to try offering 3 VTS-based experiences on the half-hour, then convene for lunch and discussion in the museum cafe. I hope having the conversational experiences come first will help break the ice, and perhaps draw in people from the galleries who didn’t know in advance that Slow Art Day was happening.

Celeste:  The artist/volunteer who leads Slow Art Day lets us know in advance of her plans and how she will coordinate sign-ups, usually through Eventbrite. As Slow Art is a grass roots movement, it was natural to let this happen organically, hosted and coordinated by a member of the community. We usually post the event on our social media channels and then that’s it! She handles the rest, guiding the group through the museum and then convening in the cafĂ© for a discussion afterwards. This works well for us because our permanent collection is free and open 365 days a year, requiring no tickets.

I believe it’s been successful in two ways. The fact that it is driven from our visitor base is a successful example of the transformation of VMFA (and museums in general) from a repository to a place for the community. Our tagline “It’s Your Art!” emphasizes our hope that visitors feel like the collection and museum belongs to them. We welcome people to use the galleries as an extension of their space, a community living room or a place of solace- whatever fits their needs. The way this program is organized and run reinforces this belief.

Slow Art Day is also important because it promotes the part of our gallery practice which emphasizes close observation and discussion of art. Taking time to explore a work of art through a multitude of pathways and honoring each person’s point of view is key to engaging the viewer while honoring art as a catalyst for conversation and dialogue.

Do you have any advice for other museums considering participating in Slow Art Day in future years?

Michelle: SAD was initially developed as a viral, community-driven idea, and I think it would really run best that way, completely external to the museum. But the first year, we had no community volunteer stepping up to organize, so I decided to make it part of our program. An impassioned volunteer leader who's not officially sanctioned by the museum may stand a better chance of activating their own participant community, using alternative/viral channels and personal networks. Making it part of the museum program seems to endow it with too much "officialness." I can't say whether or not I'll re-up yet, but either way, I'd really like to see more participation. It takes a lot of trumpeting to get folks out to try this new experience, and museums have to weigh the cost/benefit of devoting organizational time to a program with a smaller turnout, even if it has high personal impact.

Organizers also need to adjust to the infrastructure of Slow Art Day. It started as a personal project and has slowly developed into a more formal group, so it runs a little differently than many other groups museum programmers typically interact with. They prefer that SAD leaders join an email list, which unfortunately involves dozens of emails per day from all over the world during the weeks leading up to the program - which weighs down my already-groaning inbox. I've communicated with them about it, and though they feel pretty committed to having a robust exchange in the month before the program, they are also listening to their participants and thinking about new engagement tools, including online resource sharing to prevent that kind of message backlog.  Signing up through Eventbrite is also a little bit tricky, especially for museums that already have their own ticketing and reservation processes.

I have hopes that Slow Art Day continues to catch on and grow. The power of carving out a few quiet moments to really interrogate artworks from your own individual perspective is age-old, but we rarely make time for it anymore. People who do feel refreshed, and the discussion afterward helps them feel more connected to others and to their own emotions and intellect. The outcomes are so valuable that the project can be worth doing, even for a niche audience. I look forward to learning more from other SAD leaders, whether in or outside of museums, about this interesting way of inviting independent engagement with art.

Celeste: My advice would be to let a member of the community host and support from the periphery, but be prepared to back up the practice SAD promotes with a similar philosophy in your other gallery programs. It is refreshing to know that people are looking for opportunities to take time with a work of art to contemplate, appreciate (or not), and discuss their impressions. As Michelle mentions, this is not a new concept, but a reboot of an age-old practice.  How great is it that museums can be trendsetters by bringing an old school idea into the 21st century?

If you want to experience this slow event first-hand, check out the list of 2015 venues to find a participating museum or gallery near you. You can also volunteer to host a group at your museum. Either way, let Michelle, Celeste and me know how it goes, via comments on this post!

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