Slow Art Day and the value of spending time looking at pictures

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Joho / Cultura RM

Joho / Cultura RM

Five years ago the Slow Movement (Slow Food, Slow Travel etc.) added another activity to its list – Slow Art Day. We talk to its originator Phil Terry, CEO of Collaborative Gain, about the inspiration and value of spending time looking at pictures

Slow Art Day which runs this Saturday began in 2009, founded by Phil Terry (CEO of Collaborative Gain), whose past clients have included The American Association of Retired People, American Express, HBO, The New York Times and Nike.

Back in 2008 Terry spent an hour in front of Hans Hofmann’s painting Fantasia, a textured, psychedelic splurge of light, colour and movement. It provided an epiphany about the value of art, of looking, of attention. Slow Art Day followed in 2009 where people where invited to spend at least 10 minutes in front of five paintings. It is now held at 235 venues around the world, from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, to the Art Institute of Chicago, to Rome’s Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna e contemporanea, to the Courtauld in London, to Kunstwerk Cologne.

Terry has recently published Customers Includeda book written with Mark Hurst about including customers in the innovation of products and paying attention to what they are saying.

As Terry points out below, Art is valuable for its own sake, the skills of looking and attention are something that artists, photographers and illustrators are lucky enough to have the opportunity to develop in Art school. And equally, while Terry makes it clear that the value of art is the singular experience it offers, it doesn’t mean that the experience can’t be learned from and accessed for other activities.

Indeed in the business world, at least since the publication of Joseph Pine’s and James Gilmore’s book The Experience Economy in the late 90s, the desire for an ‘experiential’ relationship with customers has driven business and spilled over into Pine and Gilmore’s following book Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want.

But what’s interesting about Slow Art Day is that it offers a practice (look for at least 10 minutes) and the possibility of an experience that’s owned by the viewer. It’s why giving attention to art at the very least brings new perspective, and is in the words of business thinkers potentially ‘disruptive’ in that it can over time shift how you see things.

In a world of customisation and personalisation, digital technology provides us with information and options based on previous choices – it’s designed to make life easier, showing us what we are familiar with. It’s about ‘Easy’. Slow Art Day makes ‘Difficulty’ accessible. And the experience tells us that ‘Difficult’ is ok, because we have negotiated it, made some sense of it and eventually ‘difficulty’ makes us add another dimension to how we see things. As Image Source photographer Mischa Keijser talks elsewhere on the blog about ‘Slow Photography’, being committed to the act of waiting when taking a photo enables unusual and interesting stuff to happen.

Mischa Keijser, Subjectivity series

Mischa Keijser, Subjectivity series

We spoke to Phil Terry to find out more.

What’s sits behind Slow Art Day?

We are trying to promote more visual literacy in the world.

There are two things I want to ask you about. Firstly, you were clearly interested in going to galleries as an activity in itself, but I’m also interested in how it plays out in relation to your business background. And secondly the origin of Slow Art came out of an epiphany in front of a painting?

I’m a pioneer in the field of customer experience and for 20 years I’ve been writing, teaching and consulting for companies, helping them to think about what it means to create a great customer experience. A great customer experience starts with insight around a basic, unmet need. When you think about the latent unmet need visitors to a museum have, I would argue the one critical latent unmet need is to really have an experience be created where they learn how to look at and love art, in the same way that artists or other insiders know how to do it.

Nick White/Image Source RF

Nick White/Image Source RF

But the fact of the matter is, current human behaviour is such that people spend between five and eight seconds looking at an individual piece of Art. As any photographer or visual artist knows, there’s absolutely nothing you can do in five to eight seconds. In fact it’s worse than nothing, it’s a negative experience. This is why most people are tired at the end of their museum visit. You should not be tired after looking at Art. The only reason people are tired because they try to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Tate and look at the entire collection in an afternoon. It’s absolutely impossible.

Les and David Jacobs / Cultura RF

Les and David Jacobs / Cultura RF

What I wanted to do is to create a provocation, provoke the public to try something radically new, in the experience of looking at art. I also realize that museums have competing priorities. They have a critical fundraising priority, particularly in the United States and increasingly in Europe, they have a priority relating to artists and to other museums and curators to the art press, to the art world as a whole.

What tends to fall to the bottom of the priority list is the basic experience of the typical visitor. So I said let’s create something that doesn’t require the museums to necessarily initially participate. All of our initial Slow Art day events were by volunteers without even the acknowledgement or permission, because permission is not required, volunteers organise these events where people went and looked slowly at each piece.

As it grew and we discovered it was a terrific way to build a relationship with an audience, museums started to realise ‘holy cow!’ we should be involved!

What year was this?

2009. I had my ‘epiphany’ in 2008 at the Jewish Museum. I think about that experience a lot. I went to there to see an exhibition and decided to sit in front of a piece of work, a Hans Hoffman painting for an hour. And I can’t tell you why I decided to do this it was totally spontaneous. I guess I suspected that it might give me a different way of experiencing the art. And it blew me away. Holy Cow! I saw so much. For the first thirty seconds or a minute people are like, ‘Oh my God, can I really do this?’ And then it transforms, people often say to me, “I couldn’t believe it, I was going to look at this art for 10 minutes, that sounded so long. And after the first minute I forgot about everything but the art. I didn’t think about time, it was great. 15 minutes and I didn’t even realize it.” People are excited. Why are they excited? They discover the fact that every single human being has the capacity for visual literacy and experiencing art. It is a basic human impulse to create art and to be part of the experience. It’s only our overwrought civilization that has created these silos unintentionally that has ended up making the majority of people feel like they are outside the Art experience.

Joho / Cultura RM

Joho / Cultura RM

They are excited to discover that there’s ten different things in the painting, sculpture or whatever piece of art they are looking at. That they have discovered what they didn’t see at first, that unveiled itself, they’ve discovered that they have a relationship, they have something to say. They don’t need to be an expert to translate this thing for them. An expert can give them insight that they wouldn’t necessarily know, some historical knowledge, an interesting context. But here’s the thing we discovered – you need that Art experience first, you need to discover that you have the capacity potential and love for art before you have an expert give you the additional context. If you do that first it will just overwhelm you and you’ll never look because you think  “I can never know all these things, I need to know all this stuff”.

Aspects of Slow Art Day reminded me of another compelling project, Alexandra Horowitz’s book On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes, of being attentive in the moment, to looking at what’s around you. Looking as a kind of skill. About paying attention.

Here’s where we connect back to my professional life. I work in the internet world. I also have a new company called Collaborative Gain. Over a decade ago I started a community with Marissa Mayer and some other people where I tasked them to ask each other for help. It was an all-internet group of Senior executives. Slow Art Day is also a provocation to my brethren in the internet world to say that multi-tasking is not all its cracked up to be. No matter what we’re doing, attention is very, very powerful. The research is clear now, multi-tasking is a myth, you can’t really pay attention to more than one thing  at a time in any kind of quality way. You can juggle balls but you are going to drop one.

So it’s much better to be monogamous-in-the-moment. Paying attention to attention, and what attention can do to qualitatively transform our lives, the relationships we have, the products and services that we create, the relationships we have with customers. In a deep way there is something really important here about attention. It turns out art is a terrific way to learn the power of attention. And frankly, if it had no other relevance it would still be important.

Like many activities done for their own sake, they create a space to think freely – art, philosophy – but this ‘freedom’ helps you think differently about other things?

There is very much a philosophical component to this, I studied a little bit of Wittgenstein and I love his idea of ‘language games’ and the way he would think playfully about context and language. The Slow Art day is a game. One of the great qualities of games is that they rule in certain things, they rule out certain things. Part of the game here is the idea that we created this game. We non-Art-experts created an Art game, we set only a couple of key rules – you pick five pieces of art and look at them for 10 minutes each. Everything else is up to you. You own this, we want you to have the experience, we will do everything we can to support you but you own this. It’s not something we are doing for you but with you.

Flynn Larsen / Cultura RM

Flynn Larsen / Cultura RM

It’s a creative act?

Yes we are saying it’s your creative act, we’re simply facilitators of the creative act you are making. You decide to do something radical and it turns out looking at something for 10 minutes is a radical act of creativity. This is going from being a passive consumer, looking for a few seconds, to an active co-creator. Duchamp said that the spectator completes the act that the artist began, I believe that. I believe that when you look attentively at a piece of art you are creating an Art experience and you are co-creating the art with that artist. There is that sense of community and co-creation that is also an important part of this.

We have no formal infrastructure, we are not a corporation or a non-profit, we have no money, it’s all volunteers who have made this happen with their own time and effort. There is something exciting about that.

For more information on Slow Art Day, click here.

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