Is this the future of museum art education? A discussion with Laurel Fehrenbach

We recently caught up with Laurel Fehrenbach, public programs coordinator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, to discuss “Is This Art?”, a museum initiative with several programs that slows visitors down and asks them to focus on only one or two pieces of modern or contemporary art.

We discussed in-depth one of the “Is this Art?” programs, the “Open Discussion” series, which starts by asking people to quietly look at a single piece of art. There is no introduction or curatorial discussion. Then after a while – about 5 minutes – Laurel starts a dialogue with a few questions, like “what are your first impressions?” or “what do you see?”  Throughout the 45 to 60 minutes sessions, Laurel is more of a participant than a moderator.

Laurel has found what we have found in our Slow Art Day events around the world – i.e. that this simple experience of asking people to slow down and look has a big impact. “People don’t often get the opportunity to unplug from their smartphones and cell phones and sit in front of artwork for 10 minutes or an hour. But when they do, the experience is transformative, refreshing and thought provoking.” We agree.

Laurel, who is passionate about helping people see the art without guided experts, is still experimenting with different ways of running the program.

We shared with her the design for Slow Art Day events, particularly the decision to invite people to look slowly on their own without any guide from the museum, though some Slow Art Day events do have a curator or educator come along in a way similar to what Laurel  does. She’s considering bringing Slow Art Day back to the Smithsonian American Art Museum next April (the museum had participated in earlier years) and, in the meantime, is looking to connect with more people like us and others.

We are really happy to see this innovative initiative at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and look forward to continuing a conversation with Laurel as her program evolves. And, like Laurel, we are interested in identifying more museums doing similar programming. In fact, part of our mission at Slow Art Day is to support and inspire these kinds of events.

If you know of a museum or gallery pursuing programming we should know about, please comment here on this blog post or contact us.

And if you are in the DC area next week, stop by and look slowly at some art with Laurel and other participants at the next Open Discussion event, Tuesday, December 4, from 12pm – 1pm.

– Naomi Kuo, Slow Art Day intern, with Dana-Marie Lemmer, Slow Art Day Coordinator

3 Comments on “Is this the future of museum art education? A discussion with Laurel Fehrenbach

  1. I love the format of this! It goes to show that no matter what the format, stopping to look and engage is incredibly beneficial!

  2. What a great program! I would love to see this catch on in other places and to be able to participate.

  3. Such an exciting program proving we can practice our slow art skills more than once a year!

    Looking forward to hearing what other museums are doing.