MANH December 2012 : Page 98
Slow Me the Way Don’t race through that museum take it all in. At least, that’s what the Slow Art movement would like you to do. Here, Tom Clavin explains this burgeoning campaign that started with one artist in New York City, and is poised to become a phenomenon. | December 2012 tour: Take your time, take it easy, and 98 | photo: joel saget/afp/getty images
Investigative Slow Me The Way
Don’t race through that museum tour: Take your time, take it easy, and take it all in. At least, that’s what the Slow Art movement would like you to do. Here, Tom Clavin explains this burgeoning campaign that started with one artist in New York City, and is poised to become a phenomenon.
Next spring, a group will gather at The Museum of Modern Art to gaze at several works. They will not speak, nor allow themselves to be herded along to another section of the museum. Time will pass, minute by minute…
Is this an Occupy MoMA demonstration? The Walking Dead meets Abstract Expressionism? No, the museum will be one of many venues hosting the fifth annual Slow Art Day, an event that began in Manhattan and now has participants not just across the U.S., but also in Australia, Serbia, France and elsewhere around the world.
It may seem absurd to some people that there’s a day devoted to something they’ve never heard of before. However, “slow art” is not a newfangled concept—it can trace its ancestry back more than three decades, to when, in 1978, artist Tim Slowinski wrote on the wall of his Manhattan studio, “Art is a way of life, a method of being, a way of perceiving the world.” OK, not exactly the cave drawings at Lascaux, but this inscription sent the aptly named Slowinski on the path to what became the Slow Art movement.
It was, appropriately, a slow trip: Not until 1993 did Slowinski begin promoting Slow Art at his Limner Gallery, then located at 598 Broadway. “It was based on and related to my opposition to the fast-food business and the direction of the culture generally,” says Slowinski, whose gallery can now be found upstate in the city of Hudson. “My approach to life and art is devotional, and was founded on the idea that our desires should not be based on ego or materialism, but on activities that enhance human culture and the collective consciousness.
Slow Art is a peace movement. After all, what could be more peaceful than standing and slowly contemplating a work of art?”
Over the years, Slowinski advocated the Slow Art concept, but often found himself a voice crying out in the wilderness of New York artists and entrepreneurs. “The gallery scene there didn’t contribute at all to Slow Art,” he says. “In fact, it’s somewhat the antithesis of it. The gallery scene is based on materialism and ego. With Slow Art, ‘art’ is the physical manifestation of human consciousness, its existence independent from the person who created it. It’s the manifestation of a spiritual force, a sacred object. That’s why it needs to be meditated upon slowly. In the New York art world, art is a commodity whose value is based on financial, marketing and advertising forces. This is the challenge Slow Art faces.”
And it might have succumbed to that challenge had it not been for Internet ace Phil Terry.
If Slowinski can be viewed as the St. John the Baptist of the Slow Art movement, Terry, the CEO of a Manhattan-based business-consulting company, could be its St. Paul, having had his own Road to Tarsustype moment—though one that could actually be considered more Old Testament than New, as it happened to occur at The Jewish Museum of New York.
“I was there in 2008, on a Saturday when very few people were there, to see an exhibit of postwar New York School art,” Terry recalls. “I was standing before a painting by Hans Hofmann titled ‘Fantasia’—there was no plan, I just spontaneously decided to sit there and gaze at this painting for an hour. It was a terrific experience. Hey, I didn’t create the idea of looking at a painting for a long period of time—every art history teacher advocates that. But I was really struck by what an emotional and intellectual experience it was, in addition to a visual one.”
Terry’s company, Creative Good—a firm specializing in social media, which he joined 13 years ago—works with 500 clients to enhance customer experience; so it was no stretch for him to wonder if his realization about looking at and absorbing art in a snail-like manner would be helpful to others. It sure didn’t hurt that Terry, who has a Harvard MBA, knows how to organize things. Case in point: Three years ago he tested the expanding power of social media by starting a Facebook page to celebrate the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, and within two weeks, 220,000 people, including some of the world’s leading scientists, had signed up.
So, Terry thought, why not dedicate a day to finding out if Slow Art Day had legs?
Turned out it did, although its origins were especially humble: There was only one museum, the Museum of Modern Art, involved that day in August 2009, and just four people showed up. But Terry and a handful of friends worked the Internet, and by the second Slow Art Day, in 2010, 54 venues had joined MoMA in hosting art viewers who preferred to follow the tortoise rather than the hare.
Though “hosting” may be too strong a word. “Many of the venues aren’t aware they’re part of Slow Art Day,” says Terry. “I don’t think the folks at MoMA know to this day. It’s not a gallery tour, we don’t ask for free admission. People just show up.”
In truth, it’s a little less arbitrary than that. Each venue has at least one host who’s joined on the big day by a small group of participants.
He or she has preselected five pieces of art, and escorts the group to view them, with 10 minutes being the typical viewing time for each work.
But the experience doesn’t end there. A while back, a famous proponent of the Slow Food movement, world-class chef Danny Meyer, had a brainstorm: Why not combine Slow Food with Slow Art? According to Terry, “Meyer’s company runs the food operations at MoMA and other museums, and he suggested enhancing the experience by having participants sit down to lunch for discussions. So that was the next step we took.” Now, when the art-viewing is done, the group has something to eat, and in the ensuing discussion chew over what they’ve just seen.
“It’s evolved into a twopart process,” says Terry. “First, participants enjoy experiencing art in a way they haven’t before, and second, they like finding out they have so much to say afterward, while sharing a meal.”
“The people I know who appreciate art also appreciate good food, and the process of making both,” says Mary Cleaver, founder of Cleaver Company and the Green Table in the Chelsea Market, who’s a leader in the sustainable food movement. “The creativity involved in both is similar. I’ve known Phil Terry for 10 years, and when he began talking about Slow Art Day, I got the concept—that we need to slow down and look all around us. And I realized how much art fit into that idea of savoring what we create, whether it be food or art. It’s what civilizes us.”
According to Cleaver, the philosophy that propels (albeit slowly) Slow Art Day is the Slow Food movement, which was founded in 1989 and counts more than 100,000 followers in 1,300 chapters worldwide. Comedian Jon Lovitz bleats in Subway commercials, “Eat fresh!” but Slow Food adherents prefer the credo: “Good, clean and fair.” A thumbnail description offered on the slowfood.com site is: “Slow Food is a global, grassroots organization with supporters in 150 countries who are linking the pleasure of good food with a commitment to their community and the environment.”
Slowdowns are being attempted in other areas of culture as well. Natalie Chanin, in Florence, Ala., is the author of several books—the most well-known being Alabama Stitch Book: Projects and Stories Celebrating Hand-Sewing, Quilting and Embroidery for Contemporary Sustainable Design—that promote Slow Design. John Brown is an architect in Calgary, Canada, who on slowhomestudio.com urges consumers to reject what he calls “fast-food architecture.” Norway’s Geir Berthelsen casts a much wider net via his World Institute of Slowness and the site slowplanet.com, which promotes not just Slow Design but Slow Travel, Slow Shopping and other turtle-esque responses to the modern world. A popular blog on the various slow movements, inpraiseofslow.com, is written by Carl Honoré, a Canadian living in London, and is named after his 2005 book (published by HarperOne) by that title. And right here in Manhattan is slowLab, a think tank run by designer and curator Carolyn Strauss.
One might wonder: Don’t aficionados already give art its due? Research is piling up to show that the simple answer is no. One study, done at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, found that the average time a visitor spends observing a work of art is 17 seconds. If you think that’s probably a low-ball figure, think again: The Louvre, in Paris, did a study centering on the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa, and learned that the average viewing time was a stingy 15 seconds.
Bonnie Pitman, former director of the Dallas Museum of Art and now a scholar in residence at the University of Texas, has co-written a groundbreaking book titled Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museums, which draws from research to propose ways that museums around the country can make the viewing of art more enjoyable, and the viewers come back for more. As Terry puts it, “Let’s give people an experience in a museum that they’re inspired by, not one that makes them tired or, worse, not eager to go back.”
For even more support, Slow Art Day proponents point to the work of the Swiss- German cultural scholar Martin Tröndle. In a study he conducted in Switzerland involving 576 wired-up museum visitors, Trondle found that those who spent more time looking at art experienced more emotions. Another surprising conclusion of the study: that there was little difference between knowledgeable viewers and those in non-art professions in their reactions to art. Moderate curiosity appears to come out even with knowing the difference between Jackson Pollock and Jackson Browne.
Such findings fit right in with the Slow Art Day ethos. No wonder, then, that interest in it is building… well, fast. More than 75 venues hosted participants in 2012, and last month, organizers announced they’d already surpassed 100 venues worldwide for the fifth annual Slow Art Day slated for April 27, 2013. If you sign up (at slowartday.com or facebook.com/slowartday) to take part, you’ll have company— not just art viewers, but others who are part of intersecting movements to keep museums relevant in the 21st century.
“There’s a growing recognition that we need to think about the art-visitor experience,” Terry says. “Museums are realizing they have to come to grips with that if they want to keep attracting people, especially young people, to their exhibits. We’re hoping Slow Art Day becomes a model, that it influences programming. We’re hearing of museums that are scheduling monthly Slow Art programs, so it does seem we’re part of a growing movement that recognizes we need to do something to change the fact that the general public is not looking at art in a way that’s truly meaningful to them.”
Helping that movement along are other enthusiasts of Slow Art Day and the concept behind it. Alison Pierz, who owned a gallery in Chelsea and is writing her master’s thesis on Slow Art, hosted for the first time last April, at a threegallery tour of work by three different artists, which she’d curated. Already, she’s eagerly waiting the 2013 event.
“I’ve even gotten my mother, who’s a curator at a museum in Connecticut, involved,” Pierz says. “And I enjoyed promoting Slow Art Day at the Governors Island Art Fair last September, signing up future hosts. I really hope the concept continues to grow, so I’m glad to put my own time into doing that.” In fact, she’s also the curator of a pre-Slow Art Day exhibit opening Dec. 6 (and continuing through January) at the Skylight Gallery on 29th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues.
The Slow Art movement definitely has legs, and they’ve traveled West as well as overseas. “A few years ago, I received an email from Phil asking if I wanted to be part of Slow Art Day,” recalls Hedy Buzan Williamson, an artist and art teacher in Laguna Beach, Calif. “At the time he had only nine institutions involved, one of which was the Eli Broad Collection, in Los Angeles. I went up there that day and it was a great experience, so I said I’d put together a day at other Southern California venues. I’m a member of the beach community here, and Slow Art definitely fits into that whole vibe—thought there’s some irony that it came from fast-paced Manhattan to the welcoming environment of California, instead of the other way around.”
For Williamson, Slow Art Day works because “it allows people to ‘own’ their viewing experience. Participants are allowed and encouraged to make their own discoveries, which are then validated when they talk about them with other people.”
The Slow Art movement and, more recently, Slow Art Day have shown they’re more than passing fancies. What was begun by two people, independent of each other, in Manhattan may help rescue deserving art from museums’ reliance on mega-exhibits that push visitors through as though they were on moving sidewalks, resulting in an experience few want to repeat.
“The future of Slow Art Day will be interesting, because when people sign up they have some anxiety about the time commitment—that it’s too much, and they might get restless,” says Williamson. “But in every Slow Art Day I’ve been part of, everyone walks away enthusiastic, asking, ‘Why do we do this only once a year?’ Also significant is the fact that people who’ve done it one year come back the next, and the next. Clearly, demand for the event is increasing.”
“There are a couple of ironies involved in the present and future of this event,” says Terry. “One is that Slow Art Day began in New York City, with its reputation of being a place where everything happens fast. The second is that we’re using the Internet to get people to go into museums that have been around for hundreds of years, and—we hope—preserve their future.”
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