One Saturday in 2008, Phil Terry visited the exhibition “Action/Abstraction” at the Jewish Museum in New York and spent an hour in front of Hans Hofmann’s Fantasia (1943). His mind made connections as he stared. He noticed a drip in the painting, which reminded him of Jackson Pollock, whose painting Convergence(1952) was hanging around the corner. Terry knew that Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, had studied under Hofmann, and he wondered if Hofmann’s drip techniques had influenced Pollock. But he didn’t seek a definitive answer—the experience was more stream-of-consciousness than scholarly.
Before that afternoon, Terry, the CEO of Creative Good, a consulting firm that helps corporate executives relate to their customers, had no particular interest in art. “My wife kept dragging me to museums,” he says. “I didn’t know how to look at art. Like most people, I would walk by quickly.”
After Fantasia, Terry wanted to share the experience of slowly ingesting artworks with other art-world outsiders, so he started an annual event called Slow Art Day. According to one study published in the journal Empirical Studies of the Arts, museumgoers spend an average of just 17 seconds looking at an individual painting—and that statistic might be generous. “People usually go to a museum, see as much as they can, get exhausted, and don’t return,” Terry says. “Slow Art Day energizes people.”
Here’s how it works: A volunteer host selects art at a gallery or museum. Participants, who sign up for a group online, meet at the venue and examine several objects for five to ten minutes each, and then sit down to discuss their impressions over lunch. “I work behind the scenes to create the community of hosts and spread the word,” Terry says of his role as orchestrator of the event. Slow Art Day is free, but participants pay their own museum admission fees.
In October 2009, the program officially launched in 16 museums and galleries across the United States, Canada, and Europe. In the spring, it expanded to 55 locations spanning six continents, with nearly 2,000 participants. When meetings occur on April 16, membership in the group is expected to grow even more.
Payal Kripalani, a graphic designer and painter, co-hosted two Slow Art Days in Boston and will lead another group this year in Mumbai, where she has since relocated. In Canberra, at the National Gallery of Australia, Michelle Fracaro, the museum’s project officer of public programs, discovered that “the slow art experience is surprisingly challenging—more challenging than you think!”
“Some participants chose to sketch while they looked, while others just chose to look,” Fracaro adds. The works her group scrutinized included Mark Rothko’s red-and-black composition 1957 #20 (1957) and Anselm Kiefer’s Abendland (Twilight of the West), 1989, a bleak painting of railroad tracks. For Slow Art Day 2011, Fracaro will lead an excursion through the National Gallery’s new Aboriginal galleries and contemporary-art installations.
In New York, Terry will conduct a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Shakhruz Ashirov, who founded a company that creates art-related iPhone apps, joined Terry’s groups at the Museum of Modern Art in 2009 and 2010. Ashirov lingered in front of Gustav Klimt’s The Park (ca. 1910) and Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night(1889). “It was strange and confusing at first,” he says of slow art viewing. “But after I got used to it, I started enjoying it and thinking about the work, the artists, and the purpose of the piece. And I realized that my usual behavior is to quickly jump from work to work in a museum, just to tick them off on my invisible list.”
How should we look at a single work for five to ten minutes? Terry says, “We recommend that people get close, get far away, squint.”