Earlier this month was Slow Art Day: the day when participating museums choose five pieces of art that participating visitors will look at slowly – for five to ten minutes – and then discuss with other visitors over lunch. Some of 2015’s official participants were the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Laurel Museum, the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College, and the University of Maryland Art Gallery. (Appropriately, both the University of Maryland, College Park and Slow Art Day have turtles as a symbol.) Besides these local and regional institutions, dozens of museums all over the country as well as sites in countries such as the UK, Ghana, and Australia participated.
But regardless of whether a museum is officially participating, there is art in a lot of places (and there can, in theory, be slowness in a lot of places).
Discover Stathmore: Sounds of Brazil, June 2014
The primary place to visit near the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro station is the Music Center at Strathmore, which as the name suggests, is mostly known for its live musical performances. But in addition to its fame as a performing arts venue, it is also a museum of visual arts.
I visited Strathmore last year for the Discover Strathmore: Sounds of Brazil open house, a free day full of performances and family activities. With good weather and the prospect of a free visit to a place whose live shows normally cost money, the center was crowded on that late-spring Sunday afternoon. While walking on the grounds and through the Mansion, which hosts exhibits relating to visual and performing arts, I felt overstimulated and overwhelmed by the number of people sharing the space.
It did not feel like a slow experience for me, especially inside, maneuvering my way through the exhibits, waiting in line for the bathroom. I didn’t bother stopping to look closely at anything or read the text. I wanted to see the mansion, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of time lingering when there were so many other people around waiting for a turn.
Discover Stathmore: Sounds of Brazil, June 2014
Following the Brazilian theme, there were recordings of Brazilian music playing in one room in the mansion. When I entered the room, the song playing was “Aguas de Marco” written by Antonio Carlos Jobim (“Waters of March” in English). It is a mellow, peaceful, pretty song that provided a sense of calm and solitude even among the crowd.
Outside, the people were mostly concentrated around the gazebo, which served as the main performance stage that day. The music was upbeat, fast-paced, and fun. Festivalgoers were encouraged to get up and dance with the costumed performers. Food and drink were available for purchase, giving the event a cookout feel.
So what could be enjoyed slowly, among the fast music and the crowds? The grounds of Strathmore are dotted with sculpture, offering anyone who needs to slip away from the excitement a chance for slow art viewing. The sculpture garden includes a few pieces that evoke music and dance, along with birds and deer, a small temple perhaps reminding one of the big gazebo, and several abstract works. If you walk along the paths, you can see these works, along with flowers and trees.
My interest in Slow Art is not based on any belief that slowness is an inherent virtue in itself, but in the importance of embracing a variety of paces and approaches to museum visiting. The possibilities that can emerge from viewing a piece slowly need special attention and encouragement because they might seem so unusual and counter-intuitive at first. As this article on Slow Art quotes one museum professional, “the slow art experience is surprisingly challenging—more challenging than you think!”
Slowness in a museum is a luxury not always practical or even available. Not everyone has the time required, and those who are shelling out money to visit a museum may understandably want to make sure they don’t miss anything. At a museum with large crowds in a small space, manners (hopefully) keep a few individuals from monopolizing the viewing space around a piece everyone wants a turn to see. If the only way to view a collection is by guided tour (as is the case at many DC-area sites, for security reasons), trying to linger behind rather than moving along with the group can land a visitor on a personally-guided tour right out of the building.
Music Center at Strathmore Sculpture Garden: “Up the Ramp” by David Stromeyer
And then there are the social considerations when visiting with others: one friend has never been to this museum before and wants to stop to look at everything; the other friend is getting hungry and anyway has been here a hundred times already. One half of the couple wants to meet up with a larger group and the other is not feeling very extraverted today. Mom needs to read every word of wall text, while Dad would like to go see a second museum before it closes this afternoon. None of these approaches are right or wrong or more valid than another.
As the main attraction near the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro, the Music Center at Strathmore is nice in that it offers some choice: in the thick of things or off on the path, visual or performing arts, inside or outside.
Grosvenor-Strathmore is on the Red Line.