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Karly Allen (LIMINA collective)

Bringing together art and mindfulness in museums

transcript s.2 ep.5

SPEAKERS

Karly Allen, Alina Boyko, James Harrod

James Harrod

This is For Arts’ Sake, a podcast that gives voice to museum people. Here we pull the curtain to hear untold stories, for arts sake.

00:05

Alina Boyko

And for your sake. And we're joined today by Karly Allen. Karly is an art history lecturer and art educator who has a wealth of experience to share. She has worked with big, mostly big and small museums and art galleries, as well as corporate clients.

00:11

James Harrod

Karly has been working as a lecturer for over 20 years and spent nearly 18 years at the National Gallery.

00:26

Alina Boyko

Most recently, Karly co-founded a team of experts from the worlds of arts and mindfulness.

00:32

James Harrod

This group is the Limina Collective. Together they explore the possibilities of mindful practice in the art world.

00:38

Alina Boyko

The question is, can the practice of mindfulness create a positive change for someone visiting or experiencing museums.

00:45

James Harrod

We are about to find out.

00:51

Alina Boyko

We are absolutely fascinated to hear what Karly has to say, so let's get right to it.

00:52

James Harrod

Karly, welcome. First things first, you are a specialist in mindful looking, can you tell us what that means?

00:58

Karly Allen

One of our goals is, of course being a walking tour, is to engage with anybody who can just walk up to that tour. That's actually why we chose that route itself. I think what's very common in Oxford especially, is there is this is really big divide between members of the university, and the people who just walk the streets, and Oxford gets 9 million tourists a year, and not many of those tourists will actually have to talk to an academic from Oxford, despite the fact they've traveled to Oxford for a reason, and that's academic engagement, and that's intellectual stimulation. So what we really want to do to engage diverse audiences is try and reach those audiences. So that means we've advertised through tourist information centers, in different ways then academics, but we also get the academics through Twitter and through Facebook, as well. But then we also work with local community groups as well, to try and bring in a diverse local community so that they can also feel that space is theirs to talk about and engage with, and they bring some of the most amazing perspectives because they live in the space of Oxford and they have for many, many years.

01:04

James Harrod

Ok, so rather than sort of passive looking, just wandering around enough and have a glance, like actually giving it the attention it deserves?

01:30

Karly Allen

Right. It's a practice that we can bring to, an experience that we will all have had and shared, and an experience of walking through an art museum where we are very much aware that our looking is often fleeting. If we bring attention to how we are looking or stand still in a museum or gallery and look around, we know from so many studies, don't we, that so often, there are a number of seconds that has been tried to be placed on how long the average amount of time people spent actually looking at an individual artwork. And that might be 17 seconds or 30 seconds. It's very rare that you hear that the average amount of time spent looking is a minute, or let alone five minutes. So how can we bring these meditation, mindfulness practices that are rooted in tradition, that are so alive and relevant to today, and this great wave of interest that we're seeing in mindfulness? And how can we bring that to our quality of looking and to see what can be done to exercise this muscle of attention that we have, and to bring about a greater awareness of the experience of looking at art.

01:35

Alina Boyko

It's really interesting. Speaking of meditation and mindfulness, can you tell us what mindfulness is?

02:47

Karly Allen

Mindfulness is a word that I imagine that most people, if not everybody listening to this, hears the word mindfulness and it's instantly recognisable now. So there is mindful everything, isn't there? It is such a trend, it's so current, reaching the mainstream if you like, and across all fields. So we see it having a great impact in, you know, the medical field, in the field of therapy, and across the arts, and now increasingly within the world of museums and galleries. So mindful, sometimes the word itself can be quite unhelpful in that we often find people starting on a mindfulness course or on a mindfulness session, one of the first questions you'll be asked is, what is mindfulness, or there'll be a discussion around that. And oftentimes, among the many words that come up in response to that, are notions of being utterly calm, blissed out maybe, you know, sort of floating in the full lotus position, just above your cushion, emptying the mind, one of the things that comes up in discussions is I am supposed to be clearing my mind, but I just can't clear it of these thoughts. I thought mindfulness was about having an empty mind.

02:51

James Harrod

It's mindfulness.

03:59

Karly Allen

Exactly. What is the full part of the mind we are actually, the word mindfulness is the best translation, or the sort of closest word that we can find in English, to the practice of paying attention. It's really about cultivating that ability to pay close attention, and to extend our capacity for looking without distraction. So in its simplest form, it's about focus, it's about coming back to the looking and when our mind is distracted, and our thoughts do come, because they will come, bringing ourselves back to that very simple practice of looking. And then beyond that, we find that in developing this looking and paying attention to the form of an object, and coming into our own bodies in relation to the object, and in viewing the object from a place through the senses, we can find that opens up a much greater space for appreciation of the artwork, for deepening connection with it. And that, in turn can open up a greater, deeper connection with ourselves, what's going on for us in relation to the artwork.

04:03

James Harrod

So you mentioned that mindfulness has become a little bit of a trend in lots of different fields, we see it sort of thrown around all over the place. When did you first become aware of the concept of mindful practice?

05:16

Karly Allen

I was introduced to it at the National Gallery, through my work at the National Gallery. They have for a number of years, working to bring in, to bring in the language and exercises of mindfulness into the gallery learning work that they are doing there.

05:27

Alina Boyko

You are one of the founders of the Limina Collective, along with Clare Barton Harvey and Lucia van der Drift. For any listeners who maybe aren't aware, what is the Limina Collective and what's your aim?

05:43

Karly Allen

We started off with a conversation, just recognising that we had a lot to talk about, the three of us. Clare is an artist and mindfulness teacher and workshop leader. Lucia is a writer around mindfulness and art and meditation teacher. All three of us were interested in this interplay between mindfulness and the museum experience. So from the first conversation, we knew that we wanted to work together, and wanted to form a collective, which we later called Limina, to approach different museums and galleries and to work in this way, as a small team, which has been such an eye opener, it's been such a wonderful way to work for me, having spent the last 20 years or so working independently. And like so many people in this field, as one of this largest network of freelancers and independent practitioners that work for several different museums and galleries, it's really been an extraordinary experience to come together as a small team, and to work in that collaborative way.

05:54

Alina Boyko

So the part of the Limina experience is the guided meditation, but is this practice for a specific school of meditation?

07:04

Karly Allen

Yes, much of what we are doing is a guided practice. So we will be leading people through, firstly as a settling, a grounding practice, so that once we have arrived together in front of the artwork and found our space together, we will work through some very classic exercises in groundings. So that would be really coming into our bodies. If you are seated, feeling your feet on the ground, coming to a settled aligned position. So we work with this sort of body, very simple body works, so that you are relaxing the body, whilst maintaining an alert, upright position. And as we are relaxed, I could see you doing, everyone around the room is like yes, I was slumping. And as we do that, as we come to that relaxed, yet upright position, we find also that, you know, often our breathing will also come into a more relaxed rhythm, and there's this feedback loop that then just helps us to feel more comfortable and alert and aware. So we will start with very classic posture work in that way, then we very often will work with the breath, so using that awareness of the breath to anchor our attention. So we are becoming more aware of our body in space, our relationship with the dimensions, the proportions of the room in which we find ourselves, and our relationship with the artwork. We may then alternate with closed eye meditation practices and open eye mindfulness practices when we turn our attention to the artwork itself and lead people through a series of guidance around the form and colour and experience of the painting or the sculpture. And as we become aware of the breath, we may find ourselves relaxing, and just following our breath, for a few in-breaths and out-breaths. And when we come to open our eyes, or to turn our attention to the, let's say, the painting in front of us, what we often find is that as we let in the light and we let in the painting, we allow the painting to release its colours and its shapes to us. We can get a greater sense that we are almost seeing it for the first time, to seeing it freshly. We might then guide people through their looking, people, you know, feedback to us is that there is something wonderfully relaxing and reassuring about being guided through one's looking. Anybody who's been working in museum and gallery learning regularly will be familiar with this, that just the experience of being part of a group and being led and guided in your looking can be a very seductive and enjoyable thing. We might start with a very particular part of the painting, we might tentatively move around the edges of the picture, we might look at that edge, that spot where the painting meets the frame, and trace that line around the four sides of the painting, if it has four sides. From there, we might bring our attention to light and dark, perhaps just for ourselves finding where for us, the brightest part of the painting appears to be, and really tuning into the light and dark, perhaps finding one colour resonates with us and spending time counting the colours or moving from one colour to the next. It's guiding the looking through these different layers that allows us to separate out the experience of looking. So we're not - that all the paintings rush towards us in one moment, but we're taking our time, we're taking it in steps. People often report that it's that sort of unpeeling and separating out of the looking, they find it very helpful and that it often relates for them to the separating out of thought.

07:11

Alina Boyko

Health and wellbeing in general is one of the big trends today in both commercial and ideological terms, I suppose, especially the millennials or generations that appear to take health and mental health rather seriously. The theme of wellbeing became central to museums recently. So today, museums and galleries, they try to engage people by introducing yoga sessions and creating mindful spaces. When and why has this trend started? How does mindfulness fit in within this trend?chool of meditation?

11:16

James Harrod

And perhaps why is it so essential that we do mindful practice in museum spaces?

11:44

Karly Allen

Well it has been really fascinating for me, for the last 20, 25 years, I've been involved in museum and gallery learning. So having this close relationship with a number of different museums and galleries, I was lucky enough to enter museum and gallery learning just before the millennium. So around that time, around 2000, when there was this huge injection of funding, great sense of support for what museums and galleries were doing and what they could be doing. When I was working within museum and gallery departments as a programme manager, there was such a sense of freedom, that anything was possible. And what was important was constantly expanding access and engagement. That freedom comes with financial freedom. The sort of trajectory that we are on now, 20 years later, is that more and more museums and galleries are really struggling to deliver the programmes that they were able to previously, and struggling to survive. Some museums and galleries are really having to put income generation first and foremost, just to keep their doors open. So that has had a really strong impact on what's now being offered to visitors, and particularly for free, the more and more museums are having to charge for their learning events. So this has come about at the same time as speeding up life and communication, a greater proliferation of images generally and how we absorb images. And it's come about at the same time, you know, this is all knitted together, isn't it, with a greater interest in mindfulness and slowing down. So we have these three things operating at the same time in the last decade or so. Out of that, what's wonderful to see is that museums are having to reinvent themselves, having to reinvent what their spaces are for or to think how could their spaces be used in new creative ways. They are challenging traditional programming, opening their doors to groups before the museum opens to the general public, opening it out of hours, thinking really creatively about what's possible. So I think that's made it possible for these practices to start to be absorbed. So yoga at 8am on a cold morning in a museum is a wonderful thing to be part of. And equally, it benefits the museum and gallery in many ways, in that it is providing wellbeing services or providing events that may contribute to people's sense of wellbeing and potentially a wider sense of happiness and connection with the organisation. It also taps into new income streams, because people are, you know, looking around for ways to potentially spend their hard earned money on something that's going to help them to slow down and be a bit more restorative.

11:49

Alina Boyko

Are there any museums or galleries where you've seen particularly good examples of mindfulness at work?

14:54

Karly Allen

There is some wonderful work going on in Manchester. Louise Thompson has developed programmes around this and really situated Manchester Art Gallery as this center for mindfulness in museums. They've named themselves the Mindful Museum, and it's really helpful to go to their website and find out more about what they're doing there. And particularly exciting because they've been able to get the whole organisation on board. So most recently, they were able to develop an exhibition where everything, from the lighting, the seating, the labels, the audio guide, were developed with mindfulness approaches in mind.

14:59

James Harrod

So when you are talking about museums and galleries and mindfulness, is there a particular person in mind for that mindful practice? Is it something that not everyone can practice? Or is it for everybody?

15:39

Karly Allen

Mindfulness practice is something that's inherent in all of us. So we are all doing it or have done it in some way, and I think one of the wonderful things about working with different groups is that realisation in people that, oh, that's why it feels so good when I'm knitting or that's why it feels so much better when I've been for a walk. So it's something that is a natural strategy that we have, but that we lose connection with it very easily. So mindfulness practice can be a more formal way of gathering together to cultivate this sort of attention and awareness. And through doing that, we can find that then it starts to be something that we're doing throughout the day. So mindfulness doesn't have to be still, it doesn't have to be seated. Mindfulness is a mode of being, and we can bring it to every part of our day.

15:52

Alina Boyko

In your opinion, what difference does mindfulness make in people's lives?

16:51

Karly Allen

Well, just picking up on what we were saying before about wellbeing, it has been shown through countless studies that mindfulness, in paying attention to our experience in the present moment is beneficial, it makes us feel good. So using artwork to do that, for me, is the most enriching experience, partly because it's an exercise, and it's an opportunity, often in the house of heightened environment. So you are in a museum or gallery, it's a perfect contemplative space, the image can be a very harming image, it might be a very striking image, but either way, it's going to really be this wonderful anchor, this focus for your attention. So it's an opportunity to really deepen your mindfulness practice. And the added benefit from that is that at the end of a session, one of the things that we are finding people to feedback to us is that their attitude, or their attachment to the museum itself has changed. So it's giving people the space in that half an hour, half a day, whatever it might be, that moment being with the painting in the group, being led through a mindfulness practice, it's also giving people the confidence and the tools to feel they can come back and they want to come back, this is something that's accessible to them, that they could use a guided meditation on an app or bring a text to read, or they could facilitate this for themselves and start to see the museum space as a nourishing contemplative space. Again, I think for many people, it's returning to that, and returning that quality of attention and that practice of contemplation to the heart of the museum, where perhaps it has become lacking for some visitors.

16:54

James Harrod

Thank you for chatting to us about mindfulness. One thing we do like to do on the podcast is get to know the person behind the work just a little bit. So if you can talk about your background, how you got to where you are today, what made you sort of fall in love with art in the first place? What was it that kind of clicked and made you go yeah, that's what I want to do for a living?

18:56

Karly Allen

It took me quite a while to see that. I think I could have done with some mindfulness at the time, to have some clarity, and particularly around decision making, it's something that mindfulness can really help with, just allowing things to settle and to see more clearly. I was sure that I wanted to be a historian, so not that far away really. I managed to ignore all the clues that actually I wanted to work with art, but it was actually on my gap here that I started drawing again, having not drawn for a while, but I had always drawn. And in fact, drawing is something we've not had time to touch on today, but drawing is essentially a meditative practice, and for me drawing brought me to art collections, brought me into connection with art, and it's something that I continue to use and within this mindfulness context as well. So drawing really brought me back to what I wanted to be doing. So I changed my degree programme choice, I went to study Fine Art instead, and really came to museum and gallery learning through my fine art course. So I've spent more and more time in front of paintings and sculptures in museums. So then, I went on to study history of art, to approach museums and galleries and I just knew that I wanted to be working with people and paintings. I was very fortunate that I just walked in that role very quickly. From there, I've had this really wonderful experience of being part of such an inspiring network of independent practitioners who, some are artists, some are art historians, some are scientists, actors, that kind of connected through their work in museum and gallery learning.

19:15

Alina Boyko

I would like to ask you some questions about your previous work. So before the Limina Collective, you also worked as an independent practitioner, but also as a learning officer at the National Gallery, and before that, as an education manager for the Royal Collection. So can you tell us how that came about, and maybe if you could share some highlights of your work in these roles?

21:02

Karly Allen

Yeah. So along with my colleagues, the cofounders of Limina Collective, we all continue to have independent practice. So I teach on projects that are not connected with Limina, although it's hard to separate these things out in terms of sort of where they're coming from in me. I have had some wonderful experiences of programming, being in a full time programmer role. And it is such a pleasure to be able to draw on the expertise of other practitioners. So to work with that creative practice of building a programme, building an event in collaboration with others. So I very much enjoyed being more embedded, more deeply connected with one museum collection, and having the opportunity to get to know a collection. So it's a very rewarding creative process to be managing an event. I also had the opportunity to work more closely on access programmes, which is something that I continue to do through my work with audio description for blind or partially sighted people, which more and more I'm beginning to investigate and become interested in, in relation to this process of mindful looking and of guided looking, and of scanning and absorbing and pouring our attention over one image, and the relationship between slow looking for sighted people and slow looking for blind or partially sighted people who might be calling to mind an image, and the relationship between those. So those two modes of being with an image or evoking an image. I think there's a lot to be explored in that.

21:21

James Harrod

So across your sort of various fields, whether you're working, you know, with specific museums, or working independently, or working with the Limina Collective, your work has been pretty inspiring, I'm sure lots of people listening will be thinking, I'd really like to get involved with something like that, I'd like to follow in Karly's footsteps. Have you got any practical tips of how they could get started and any challenges or obstacles they should expect along the way?

23:09

Karly Allen

I think being curious, being interested, turning up, being there, being present at museum and gallery learning events, talking to people. So I think opportunities do arise when you show real enthusiasm and engagement for a subject. Having said that, I'm also really aware that, you know, it's not always easy to break in. I had a lot of opportunities that would not necessarily be available to people now. Yes, I think people, just recognising, you know, the good people that resonate with you, and that you feel you could work with, you know, sticking together and helping each other, as in any profession, building a really strong network of colleagues and like minded people, that in five years time, 10 years time, they're going to remember you when there's this wonderful opportunity that comes up. So I am not expecting things to happen overnight, but knowing that there is some really good work going on, and that only happens because good people are working together. So it's just really keeping open to that.

23:31

James Harrod

If we get into the questions that we ask everybody.

24:44

Alina Boyko

So one question we ask absolutely everyone, if somehow magically, you had unlimited funding for projects, what would you create?

24:47

Karly Allen

Well, I was once given a glimpse of a possible perfect project by the then Director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, who suggested that, wouldn't it be wonderful after he watched me experiencing some challenges around a very, very large group of children aged under five and their families trying to... We were looking at a painting together, but the gallery was very busy, and he walked past and we got talking, and he said, I wonder if it'd be possible for us to just pick that painting up and take it to its own room. And you could have that painting with your group, just you and the painting. So I suppose if I had limitless funds and possibilities, I would make it possible for every visitor or participant to have that experience, like one room one painting, just for themselves, for an amount of time, I don't know how long that would be, but if one could request that, and have that happen, and people to go away with that experience that they would hold for the rest of their lives, that would be pretty special I think.

24:56

James Harrod

If there's one thing you'd like people to go away from this interview thinking about, what is it?

26:09

Karly Allen

I would hope that the next time that somebody is in a museum or a gallery collection, just pausing, perhaps the room of the gallery that they're about to enter and allowing themselves to settle, take a breath, notice the busyness of the gallery, watch over them, and come back to the sense of their presence in that space, and their presence with the artwork, even if that is for just one minute or one minute longer than they would ordinarily be with it.

26:15

Alina Boyko

One last thing, where can people find out more about your work?

26:55

Karly Allen

Limina Collective has a website, liminacollective.com. You can follow us on Instagram, search for liminacollective. We are limitedlook on Twitter, and we love sharing images and news of our work. So we would really welcome a growing community there.

26:58

Alina Boyko

Karly, thank you so much for joining us.

27:17

Karly Allen

Thank you.

27:20

Alina Boyko

Thank you for listening For Arts` Sake.

27:23

James Harrod

We are wishing you a mindful Merry Christmas. If you like this week's episode, go ahead and subscribe and join the conversation on our social media. You can follow us on Instagram @forartssake.

27:24

Alina Boyko

And Twitter, @sake_arts.

31:20

James Harrod

You can also find us at our website, at www.forartssake.co.uk.

31:23

Alina Boyko

Thank you.

31:28