“Think of it as a quest,” says Tim McHenry, programs producer at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York. He is commenting on an 18th-century Tibetan mandala painting, used in Tantric Buddhism as a map to enlightenment. To reach the graceful deity at the center, you have to pass through arduous obstacles of the mind. Here, McHenry says, you are “a knight whose only armor is concentration.”
The Rubin, which specializes in Himalayan art, isn’t the only place to go for such heady insights. More and more art museums are turning their galleries into contemplative spaces for group meditation. The Tampa Museum of Art in Florida holds weekly sessions led by Buddhist monks, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art conducts “meditation walks” through its 100-acre Art & Nature Park. This summer, Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center hosted the Experimental Meditation Center of Los Angeles, an artist-led collective, for an afternoon session inside James Turrell’s sunlit sanctuary Sky Pesher (2005).
“The program brings people to the museum who might not be interested in the art,” says Meg Ventrudo, director of the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art on Staten Island. The Jacques Marchais, which was designed after a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and founded as a “retreat from the outside world,” has hosted classes of 10 to 15 meditators on Saturday mornings for the past ten years.
For Brianna Bedigian, who has been teaching meditation at the Baltimore Museum of Art since 2007, the practice is an opportunity to see art in a different light. “The course is always specific to an object,” she says. Bedigian picks tranquil-feeling pieces, from Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s beaded curtain Untitled (Water), 1990, to Guanyin, a 15th-century Ming Dynasty bronze, and starts her class with a lecture on the art. This is followed by an hour and a half of breathing exercises, which she hopes will enable students to experience the work from a different perspective.
Advocates of these new programs note that looking at art, like meditation, requires deep concentration and an open mind. Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher and lecturer, talks about the need to “behold” art, “to be able to look without so many distracters.” Whether it’s a painting or the rhythm of the breath that’s being observed, “ultimately,” says McHenry, “it’s about focus.”