Slow Art Day: How To Actually Enjoy A Visit To The Art Museum Without Getting ‘Museum Legs’

By Mac McCarthy
Editorial Director, Zenergo.com

Painting--Holy Week in Seville, by Jose Jimenez y Arinda

Another heart-stopper: Holy Week in Seville, by Jose Jimenez y Arinda


My friend Greg Stern sent me an invitation this past April to join the ‘Slow Art Day‘ group he was taking to the San Francisco Legion of Honor art museum — I had never heard of Slow Art Day, but he sent materials explaining what we’d be doing.

Slow Art Day is an annual worldwide event, inspired by aspects of the Slow Food Movement. Most of us rush through art museums, glancing at the art on the walls and trying to quickly scan everything in the place and get out — which turns out to be an exhausting exercise, physically and mentally. (One art expert has even written a book on the problem: “Museum Legs” by Amy Whitaker, Holartbooks.com, Tucson, 2009). We act as if, subconsciously, we think our job is to at least glance at every item in the place–to justify the expense and effort of our annual obligatory trip to the museum.

Slow Art takes a different approach–a radically different approach. As Greg explained, we were to spend five to ten minutes on each of nine specific paintings Greg highlighted for us — individually; this isn’t a group tour. At noon, we woudl gather in the museum cafe and discuss.

Greg sent each of us a document listing the nine paintings he had selected (from hundreds) for us to concentrate on. The idea is that instead of trying to rush through and see everything, we’re going to focus on just a small set of pictures–taking our time, and letting them sink in.

It sounded interesting and offbeat. I signed up.

Nine Paintings–Three Hours

Greg’s document offered a page of background information about each painting, a few thoughts, some historical background, some things to notice. Here, for example, is Greg’s introduction to one of the most spectacular realistic paintings in the museum:

Painting: 'The Russian Bride's Attire', by Konstantin Makovsky

The Russian Bride’s Attire
by Konstantin Makovsky (Room 17)

“This may very well be the most popular piece in the museum. This life-sized painting draws a viewer into a snapshot moment as a Russian bride is being prepared for her wedding and not looking terribly happy about it. Her sister is at her knees trying to console her while her father or the groom is trying to barge his way in but is stopped by one of the attending ladies.

“This was a historical painting when it was executed (1887), depicting a Romanoff wedding in the early part of their dynasty in the 1600s (Aleksey Mikhailovich to Maria Miloslavskaya). The painting is rich in color, detail and personalities. It is fun to just stare at it and imagine what each character in the ensemble is thinking. Step up to the painting so that it completely fills your visual field and you will find that you too become part of the painting.”

Greg adds some additional information from the Internet to round out the discussion, including the observation that the artist did a great deal of research to ensure that the wonderfully detailed costumes and decorations were true to the era and the tribal styles.

I spent somewhat more than the statutory ten minutes on this painting. I couldn’t take my eyes from it. But that was an easy one: An earlier painting on our list was a three-panel Medieval work, The Last Judgment, a typically religious, unrealistic, confusing, heavily symbolic painting I would normally stroll right by in a museum visit. With Greg’s notes in hand, and the requirement to just give the piece a few minutes of my attention, I found it much more interesting than I expected. I still didn’t like it, but I got more out of it than I would have otherwise. And since it was just these few paintings I had to read the background on, I didn’t feel oppressed by the academic weight.

Best of all, when we gathered at the Legion of Honor’s cafeteria (they have excellent food, by the way), a dozen of us of varied ages and background and knowledge of art — we found the discussions of what we thought we were seeing much more interesting, than I expected. Each of the eight of us had noticed a particular thing or a particular connection as we talked about each painting. It was more interesting, and less stilted or academic, than I feared — and more interesting and satisfying than I hoped. I had a wonderful time — and I was stimulated rather than worn out at the end of the day!

Try It Yourself

The next Slow Art Day is April 28, 2012, at art museums literally around the world–see the map at http://www.slowartday.com/ for the 90+ museums participating. Sign up and your local coordinator will get in touch with you as the date comes near.

If you have found yourself with a bad case of Museum Legs from zipping through a museum a couple of times a year, trying to check off every painting in every room from your mental list so you can say you’ve “done” the museum, Slow Art Day will be as different an experience as you can possibly imagine — and infinitely more fulfilling and satisfying a day than you’re used to at the museum — especially if, like me, you are an appreciator but nothing like a student of art.

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About the Author

Mac McCarthy is editorial director of Zenergo.com, the activities-oriented social network. Mac enjoys art, but agrees with Tom Wolfe that no amount of explanation can make bad art into good art. 

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What do you think? Have you tried a Slow Art Day — or will you check out the one coming up in April 2012? Leave your Comment — and subscribe to this blog! — Mac McCarthy

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One response to “Slow Art Day: How To Actually Enjoy A Visit To The Art Museum Without Getting ‘Museum Legs’

  1. Good idea! They used this strategy in my college English classes, picked a few heavy, historical books and and actually took the time to explain them in layman’s terms.

    I should have read this article before I went to Europe. By the ninth museum you don’t give a crap about the Mona Lisa.

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