The Blanton Museum of Art’s Adam Bennett on Slow Looking

April 27, 2018

With nearly 18,000 works, the Blanton Museum of Art is the primary art collection for the city of Austin and serves as a major art resource for the community. Since 2013, the museum’s Education Team has been hosting Slow Looking – a program designed to offer grouped museum goers a sustained experience with art by engaging them in a facilitated 30-minute conversation about a single work of art. Slow Looking occurs on the third Thursday evening of every month at the Blanton. On a recent drizzly afternoon over coffee and tacos, Fusebox curators Anna Gallagher-Ross and Betelhem Makonnen had a chance to talk to Adam Bennett, the Blanton Museum of Art’s manager of public programs, about this intimate and contemplative exercise. Bennett, who is also responsible for programming the museum’s much loved year-round music, film, performance, and lecture series, speaks to Fusebox about the concept, intention, and challenges of Slow Looking.

Betelhem Makonnen: We would love it if you would start by telling us about the genesis of the Slow Looking series.

Adam Bennett: We were really interested in the studies that show that museum visitors spend ten seconds or fewer at individual works of art, and that there’s a conveyor-belt quality to the way that people experience art in museum spaces and galleries. And in thinking about ways to engage with art differently, it seemed as though the duration of the looking experience was important. So, we came up with the idea of having more intimate conversations that differ from a lot of the public programs that we do, the ones that might have hundreds of people listening to a talk or teeming throughout the galleries during a program like SoundSpace. The idea was to create a program that cut against the grain of how people typically experience art and also cut against the normal expectations of what comprises an audience –– a program that could be defined by its ability to keep people moving around and to keep the size small, but allow for people to experience the pleasures of slow looking and sustained experiences with art. And to emphasize the social importance of engaging in conversation with other people around art objects, which almost by definition can’t really happen if you only spend eight seconds soaking in the work. We’ve been doing the series since 2013.

Anna Gallagher-Ross: It feels so important to slow down when you look and I am just wondering if you could talk a bit about how the experience is led or facilitated or if it’s more of an organic conversation?

AB: The conversations are most successful when they are lightly facilitated. I find that they’re more successful when the participants spend some time taking in the scale of the work, especially sculptural works where there are multiple angles and dimensions to look at it from. For small works you need to get close; large works you need to scoot back. You might not vary your seating position when you are there for eight seconds, you might not even do it if you are there for a minute. But when you really get to understand the relationship of your body to the space, to the ambient sound in the galleries, to the community of people with whom you are engaging in the experience –– there is this sort of contemplative moment that usually happens without too many words for the first few moments. And then the facilitation usually takes the form of very open-ended questions about what we find interesting or what scrambles our perceptions of what we expect works in that form to be.

So, for example, if you have expectations of acrylic paint on canvas or of plaster sculpture, you really notice the materiality if you spend some time not talking and just looking at them. Sometimes people have seen representations of a work before they’ve encountered it in person, so we get into what happens when a work is flattened then digitized versus experiencing the work in person. I try, when I am facilitating the conversations, to sense what the audience’s priorities are and help the conversation develop toward those priorities. I personally have many readings of artworks that I try to avoid deploying. And conversely, the conversations aren’t really designed to elicit a consensus group take or to serve as a soapbox for the person who is the most assertive about his or her take. The content of the conversation depends on the work that we choose—some are very abstract and some are very figurative—but I am always interested in how they engage us in conversations about daily life.

That’s what museum programming should be doing, inspiring a sense of creativity that’s drawn from art objects but also asking questions about what these art objects, whether they’re contemporary works or works from 500 hundred years earlier: what are they doing for our lives in 2018?

I will get at those types of questions through open-ended prompts and questions. I’ve taught visual studies at universities before and this is not what I am doing during Slow Looking. I am not leading anyone towards a reading or trying to get people to appreciate a thing. I take for granted that there’s an openness to appreciation, there is a sort of trust that even if it’s not their favorite work, that they trust that we can all find something to discuss within it. So when we walk to the work, we’ll leave our hot takes behind in the lobby, and we’ll invest thirty minutes in the conversation that the collective wants to experience.

AGR: It almost sounds like a practice that you are teaching or a way of altering your perceptual tools. I feel that what you gain in this gallery setting is something that you can apply to other aspects of your life, an actual practice of looking in a different way or paying attention differently.

AB: Yes, I do see analogues in other sorts of guided communal experiences and I also see distinctions. You can think about spiritual experiences as moments when people think together, talk together, share a collective space and moment of contemplation together. But some will also classify spiritual experiences as moments when there’s a sermon on the teachings of a particular disciple and the participants are expected to sit still and listen and agree that what’s being spoken is true. The Slow Looking series is definitely the former rather than the latter.

BM: Would you say then that it is more of an ambling together rather than a tour?

AB: Ambling and its notion of mobility is true but it’s more of a metaphorical wandering because we are actually fixed in the space and mostly in our chairs. The experience is seated.

AGR: I am thinking of the flâneurs in France and their idea of walking a tortoise through the arcades which speaks to how that would inevitably slow you down and allow for a visual ambling.

BM: In terms of dynamics, what the ideal number of people that facilitates this process best?

AB: Fewer than 15 people is a great number. The program works really well when 15 individuals who have never met before show up and want a collective experience. It also works really well when you have families, or people on a date, or members of a sorority or fraternity. Works well in all those permutations, whether you are getting people who have some experience talking with each other already who can pass the conversation in relatively new subject matter but it’s also great in that it provides a sort of way to meet people who have a shared interest in doing a thing, but with whom you‘ve never shared anything else already.

I have had on my mind, the last couple of days, Slow Looking vis-à-vis these stories about Russian bots hacking our communications channels. I know it’s not really a new thing to say that we need to spend time communicating with people in real life versus the internet, but there is something about finding out that these bots had invented protests, and sometimes they’d invented the protest and the counter protest. So thinking about ways in which we’ve got Group A of people gathering together in a physical space, and Group B is across the street, and they’re shouting at each other without understanding that some algorithm has manipulated them into being there.

As far as I know, the bots will not have driven traffic to Slow Looking, at least it hasn’t happened so far! But Slow Looking is for me a refreshing juxtaposition to that, where strangers are sharing time and space and ideas together in a non-hostile environment. Which also connects to the way the talk is facilitated. Like, even if you have a presumption that because you are primarily among museum goers, who we know statistically are going to be more socially liberal than your average member of the population of Texas for instance, you still don’t want to be reinforcing expectations that you believe that your audience has by asking pedantic questions. That’s another reason why the facilitation works best when it’s really light and only intervenes to keep other people from becoming the moderator themselves.

AGR: Even though you talk about light facilitation but I am assuming, considering how long you have been at the Blanton and your knowledge of the collection, that you know these works very well in terms of their context. So how do you negotiate that role as a facilitator having this knowledge of the works but not wanting to slip into the role of teacher?

AB: If the art historical context seems pertinent and that we could deepen the discussion about the topic currently on the table, I will deploy it. I think of the metaphor of talking to witnesses. Someone who is trying to get a witness to talk about something does his or her job poorly when they suggest what the witness should be saying. It would be leading the witness and you can’t do that.

BM: I am thinking about someone like Agnes Martin and if you were to introduce the work by talking about her forsaking everything and turning her back on the world and living a hermit life, if that would lead to a more spiritual aspect in the conversation rather than if you waited just through the works for someone to get there.

AB: Yes, that is a great example of biographical information that I would always wait to deploy. I could think of sometimes where a piece of information might be pertinent but for the most part I feel like if you cast Agnes Martin as a social recluse early in the conversation then it would limit the conversation.

Really good questions can be incredibly simple. One of the questions that I frequently ask is simply to tell me about a detail that you noticed, after whatever initial period of time we’ve spent looking. So I will say, “Tell me something you’ve noticed after looking for three minutes that you didn’t initially notice.” And there is no attempt to wring the meaning out of it. Sometimes people will offer it and I‘ll want to shift towards someone who’s simply noticing. The looking has to come first in the program. Those open questions can seem simple but we can really ruin the experience by asking people to extract a meaning from it too early.

BM: Like Anna said earlier, Slow Looking is actually a practice that can be applied beyond the museum for it speaks to our lack of attention or our inability to give concentrated attention to most things in our lives due to the overwhelming flow of constant distractions present in our day to day.

AB: I have been influenced by the way that Pauline Oliveros talks about her music in just that same way. In that the deep listening experiences give us tools that we use when we listen to other things, like the sounds of cars and raindrops. You’re primed to be a better listener by her work. And in the same way, when we deepen our own ability to look more slowly, it doesn’t just make us good at looking at paintings or at sitting on your cushion and meditating. It would miss the point, really—I mean, there could be worse skills in life to acquire than the ability to enjoy going into art galleries, but that is really not the primary function, nor the secondary or tertiary function of the Slow Looking series. It’s about portable practices that you bring to your life outside of the museum.

Images courtesy of The Blanton Museum of Art