Slow Art Day at the de Young and Legion of Honor

On Saturday, April 12, the de Young, the Legion of Honor, and dozens of other museums and galleries around the world will participate in Slow Art Day. Like the National Day of Unplugging, which encourages people to power down their smartphones and socialize face-to-face, Slow Art Day’s mission is to enable new connections with art that otherwise might be lost in the everyday blur of activity. It gives participants the opportunity to expand how they look at and respond to art, with no artistic background or expertise needed. The approach is akin to meditation: simply choose a work of art and spend five to 10 minutes looking at it, without doing anything else.

A woman stands before eight colorful portraits hung in two rows of four.

Since the average time spent looking at a piece of art in a museum is less than 20 seconds—and continuing to drop—Slow Art Day may sound like a challenge for many of us. I recently spent some time looking at Georgia O’Keeffe’s oil painting Trees in Autumn, currently on view in the special exhibition Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George at the de Young. 

The back of a head is in the foreground, with a brilliant red and green palette of leaves appearing in the painting on the wall

My Slow Art experience was both a literal and figurative test of the adage, “see the forest for the trees.” At first glance, I thought I knew exactly what I saw: a striking red tree next to an evergreen tree. But after trying out some creative viewing tactics—looking closely, standing farther back, squinting, tilting my head—I saw a much more complicated and multidimensional painting after just 10 minutes. The central red shape seemed abstract and full of motion, like flowing lava, and a brown branch actually had four different colors in it. I was curious about what the scene looked like through O’Keeffe’s eyes; was this a close-up, or an entire forest?

Slow Art Day began in 2008 as an experiment by founder Phil Terry, who spent hours looking at only two paintings at The Jewish Museum in New York. Since then, the entirely volunteer-run movement has expanded globally. This year, there will be over 155 venues participating in Slow Art Day on Saturday, April 12. The de Young and the Legion of Honor will offer docent-led tours at 10 a.m. and again at 2 p.m., offering visitors some suggested approaches to slow looking. There will also be un-guided group discussions following the morning and afternoon tours in the de Young and Legion of Honor cafés, giving participants the chance to share their experiences and observations. Slow Art Day at the de Young and the Legion of Honor is open to all visitors with museum admission.

A woman in a blue shall looks at a large painting depicting an abstracted cityscape

If you’re more into digital discussion, try looking at an artwork in our permanent collection for 10 minutes and picking out a specific detail. Snap a picture and post it on Instagram @deyoungmuseum or @legionofhonor with the hashtag #slowartday, and explain why the detail stands out to you.

A visitor uses an iPhone to take a picture of a Frank Stella painting in our permanent collection

Here are few tips for embarking on your Slow Art Day experience:

  • Choose a piece of art that appeals to you at first glance and draws you in. You’re likely to stay engaged for a longer period of time if you have that initial reaction.
  • Relax, and let your eye wander over the artwork. Spend more time on details that are particularly interesting.
  • Observe from different distances and angles. Take note of what changes occur when you move around.
  • Notice how you feel, and what emotions the artwork brings up.
  • If you get bored, ask yourself why you chose this piece of art. Or pick a specific line or color and follow it throughout the artwork.
  • Afterwards, share your thoughts! It might be interesting to hear how others may have had very similar or dramatically different experiences. It’s also fun to try and draw a sketch after you’re finished looking—just a few extra minutes of observation might really create a lasting impression of a piece of art.

Plan Your Slow Art Day Experience

Register for Slow Art Day at the de Young

Register at the Legion of Honor

Learn more about Slow Art Day at slowartday.com.