The art of looking slowly

A blog post written for The Hepworth Wakefield's blog:

I’m the member of staff at The Hepworth Wakefield that stands in the gallery spaces, helping visitors and making sure that everyone and everything is safe and happy. We circulate around the museum throughout the day, switching gallery every hour.

When I first took up the role in late 2012 my friends were curious “aren’t you bored looking at the same thing every day?” and the honest answer was, and still is, “no”. The longer I spend in one of our ten galleries the more I discover about the works on display simply by looking at them; some I’ve become very fond of, some have grown from beautiful to really quite sinister pieces, and some show me something new and exciting every time I look at them.

Spending an hour with a limited number of works, rather than the usual one-hour dash-round that seems to be a theme of most of my visits to any gallery, changed my relationship with art. Intrigued, I set about doing some research and discovered Slow Art Day.

Founder Phil Terry started thinking about Slow Art Day in 2008. He wanted to know what would happen if museum and gallery visitors changed the way they looked at art. Instead of breezing past hundreds of artworks and pausing at each for the standard eight seconds, he wondered what would happen if people looked slowly at just a few. After a couple of attempts he informally asked some Museum of Modern Art (New York) visitors to join him in ‘looking slowly’ at a limited number of works. From that little acorn there are now 272 venues across the world taking part inSlow Art Day, including the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery at Leeds University where I attended their Linger Longer event on 27 April 2013.

A merry little gang of us, mostly strangers, were welcomed by the staff at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, who armed us each with a chair or bean bag and a few top tips for looking at and considering art. They then sent us off in groups of two or three to look at four pre-defined works, and one of our own choosing, for ten minutes each.

I was worried that ten minutes would be too long, but in actual fact I barely scratched the surface of each work. I looked at them from close-up and far away, considered the way they were created and the texture, the way the work was presented (framing, plinth, lighting, neighboring works), what I felt, what I saw, and what it could mean. I also considered what it communicated to me, in comparison to what was described on the information panel.

When the hour was up we regrouped for tea and cake and a jolly good discussion about what we had discovered. Full of enthusiasm we shared our thoughts on the works, dashing back into the gallery occasionally to find the hidden bears in Christopher P Wood’s The man who thought he was a bear; to reconsider whether Jacob Kramer’s The Jew was a sad and isolated figure on the edge, or a pious man with God in meditation, or to see if the creases in Gillian Singer’s untitled work were veins, roots, or a relief map.

What was so wonderful about the event was the sharing of ideas from a really wide mix of people, from teens to the retired, and that all of us were right in our point of view, even when it was different. The Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery created a really warm and safe space for us to discover the joy of looking at art and forming and sharing our own opinions, with a rich and varied display providing the context for the event.  The gallery is a hidden gem filled with treasures from the University’s world-class art and library collections and the Jewish Artists in Yorkshire temporary exhibition (running until 20 July) is a must-visit show with captivating works and artifacts that are hard to forget.

As Slow Art Day’s self-titled number one fan, I would encourage everyone to linger a little longer next time you visit a gallery: borrow one of the gallery seats; ask staff about the works (there’s no such thing as a stupid question, so don’t be scared); talk to other visitors or staff about what they see in the works and think about visiting a few times, looking at different works each time rather than worrying about seeing everything during one visit.


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