When Paul R. Davis, curator of collections at the Menil, asked me to collaborate on a program the exhibition Affecting Presence and the Pursuit of Delicious Experiences, I quickly told him that I was not at all trained in art history or any of its related disciplines. Yes, at the time I was serving as the Interim Executive Director of the Rothko Chapel, down the street from the Menil, but while I’m not a shy person, I know my gifts and my limitations. Presenting a program at a museum definitely seemed to fall outside them. Paul reassured me that he wanted a fresh approach; one he thought I could bring. Unconvinced but curious, I agreed. Paul’s whole attitude inspired me, and I found an accessible entry point to what proved to be a transformative experience.
The more traditional art viewing I grew up with contributed little to my overall development as a human being. I enjoyed art classes at school and even won an art scholarship for high school students, but understanding art that surrounded me? That was elusive. I would fall into a predictable role of passive viewer and museums made me tired. There wasn’t a clear way to engage my beingness with the intrinsic nature of the work I was attempting to appreciate. Surprisingly, working at the Chapel and getting to know the people and programs of the Menil changed all of that.
Affecting Presence was organized around two powerful ideas. The first frame comes from anthropologist Robert Plant Armstrong. It introduces the possibility of a reciprocal relationship between viewer and object. The work itself has an affecting presence, that is, a communicative energy that, in Paul’s words, “continually compels us to respond.” Paul designed the exhibit around this transaction, mixing works from a wide range of cultures and time periods but grouping them around formal qualities and function. Secondly, there is a way of seeing art that emphasizes the primacy of the viewer. This tactic emanates directly from Dominique de Menil, the museum’s founder and patron. She believed whole-heartedly in “delicious experience.” To engage on that level, one needs to be curious, willing to continue looking, absorbing, allowing. These experiences are rarely immediate; they grow over time.
Paul and I developed a program for Affecting Presence, but the flow that we offered during the program has some simple steps that can be replicated easily and can, I believe, strengthen any encounter with art.
I left the Menil with a renewed appreciation, one that took multiple forms. I was grateful to Paul for the willingness—really, the invitation—to experiment with a new form. I was also thankful for all of my years of practice, both with mindfulness meditation and as a group facilitator. Bringing these two areas together allowed for a new kind of engagement with the affecting presence of art and a truly delicious experience.