Philly museums’ plea to visitors: Slow down!

Petra Floyd, Study Tour Coordinator at The Fabric Workshop, stands in front of a wall containing 179 letters written in response to Brian Morgan's 1978 letter to Anne D’Harnoncourt looking to validate his great grandfather's marble egg, which is similar to Brancusi's egg, which is on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Barnes Foundation is home to more than 3,000 works of art -- among them, 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses. But on Saturday, the museum is issuing an open invitation to take a long and careful look at just five of them.

The occasion is Slow Art Day, an international movement to change the way we look at art. Too often, visitors dart through museums as though completing a scavenger hunt, instead of stopping to really examine the artworks. One study at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art found the typical museumgoer paused before a masterpiece for just 17 seconds.

The initiative launched in 2010, but it’s new this year to Philadelphia sites,  including the Barnes, the Fabric Workshop & Museum, and the Magic Gardens. At each museum, an educator has selected a handful of works for the program and will encourage visitors to spend about 10 minutes looking at each one. Afterward, visitors will meet for a group discussion.

You might as well take your time. Seeing -- really seeing -- the entire Barnes collection in a day is impossible anyway, said William Perthes, a senior instructor at the Barnes-de Mazia Education and Outreach Program. He’s been teaching from Albert C. Barnes' collection for 17 years, and he still discovers surprising new details on each visit.

“It’s much more in keeping with Barnes’ philosophy," he said. "The best way to understand a work of art is to spend time with it: looking at it, thinking about it, and, ideally, discussing it with others.”

A tour at the Barnes Foundation. On Slow Art Day, visitors will be encouraged to look independently, then come together to talk.

Recently, he stood in front of a large canvas by Henri Matisse, The Music Lesson.

As you look at it, a narrative unfolds. There's a family sitting together but not interacting, the domestic scene contrasted with the untamed wilderness lurking outside the window. There's a sense of unease, maybe claustrophobia, in the collapsing planes, the way Matisse distorts scale and perspective.

“For all its domesticity, there is a kind of tension that’s created," Perthes said.

Across Center City, at the Fabric Workshop & Museum, a new exhibition by the British-born, Pittsburgh-based conceptual artist Lenka Clayton also invites close perusal -- though, once you get to looking, the “unhurried hour” the museum has allotted may not be enough to take it all in.

There’s a video, The Distance I Can Be From My Son, that’s part home movie, part meditation on how to be both a mother and an artist -- part of an ongoing project that Clayton calls “An Artist Residency in Motherhood.” There’s a vitrine filled with pairs of homemade brown shoe sculptures, each made by a married couple working separately and using only materials found in their homes. There’s a wall of delicate drawings that were made, somehow, using only a typewriter.

And, upstairs, there’s a series of projects inspired by a Constantin Brancusi work, Sculpture for the Blind, which is on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Clayton found it ironic that the egg-shaped hunk of marble was kept under a vitrine. So, first, she sought to borrow it for an exhibit; the Art Museum declined. Then, she asked to arrange a touch tour; that was also rejected. So, she conceived Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind, a series of 17 Brancusi knockoffs made by 17 blind collaborators who sanded and chiseled blocks of plaster according to Clayton’s verbal description of the original.

“It works well with the Slow Art theme,” said study tour coordinator Petra Floyd, standing amid the resulting sculptures, which visitors are invited to touch. “We want people to engage with these works in a number of ways: with the story, and with the works themselves, visually and in a tactile sense.”

A separate work, Unanswered Letter, includes 179 responses from artists, curators, museum administrators, and writers, to a 1978 letter Clayton found in the Art Museum’s file on the sculpture.

The original letter, from a man named Brian Morgan to then-Art Museum modern-art curator Anne D’Harnoncourt, asked why the Brancusi work was museum-worthy when his own great-grandfather had created a similar and contemporaneous egg-shaped sculpture that was doomed to obscurity. Clayton sent it to a thousand art experts. The responses range from matter-of-fact analyses (including, at long last, a response from the Art Museum’s current modern-art curator: “Similar forms by different producers may not, after all, carry the same historical meaning”) to poetic meditations on the nature of art (“The eggs are the same. So are your desk and the museum, when seen from the distance of 10,000 years.”)

Each museum invites visitors to do their close looking independently, then come together for a conversation. At the Magic Garden, the monument to Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar’s mosaic and tilework, the conversation will center on specific details within Zagar's massive South Street installation. At the Barnes, it will explore the artistic approach of Matisse in conversation with works by Rousseau, Renoir, and Courbet. And at the Fabric Workshop, it will unpack the meaning of what’s in the gallery and what (like the original Sculpture for the Blind) is absent.

It won’t teach you everything about art in a day, but it’s a good place to start.

“My suggestion is come back often but stay for a small period of time. Come to a gallery, sit with it for a while, absorb the works there,” said Perthes. “It’s like listening to a great piece of music. Looking at a really good work of art over and over again, you begin to see it differently.”

SLOW ART DAY

10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday at the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway,  free with admission. Register at 215-278-7200 or Barnesfoundation.org

1-3 p.m. at the Fabric Workshop & Museum, 1214 Arch St.,  free, RSVP suggested at 215-561-8888 or reservations@fabricworkshopandmuseum.org.

Enter between 3 and 4 p.m., discussion at 4 p.m. at the Magic Gardens, 1020 South St., 215-733-0390, phillymagicgardens.org. Purchase tickets in advance with code "slow art" for $1 off.