1 of 8
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Art Fitness Trainer Felicia Baca discusses a piece by Andy Warhol in a home in the Yalecrest neighborhood of Salt Lake City during the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art' s "Art Fitness Training" on Saturday, February 11, 2012.

A group of 30 people stood around a square platform that was about the size of a bathroom stall. It only came up six to eight inches above the ground and was painted white, seemingly insignificant. But what the platform held was what captured the crowd's undivided attention.

Three different-sized cardboard boxes were strewn haphazardly on display. Branded with FedEx stickers and signs of what must have been an obviously rough journey, the boxes sat side-by-side with three equal-sized glass containers. The wear and tear on these was even more evident on than the cardboard, with spiderweb cracks lining the sides, and cracked sides that looked like they wouldn't make it through another day.

"What do you see?" asked Laura Hurtado, education assistant for the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art.

Responses followed:

"FedEx boxes."

"Labels."

"Broken glass."

"Barcodes."

Again, Hurtado posed the question, "What do you see?"

The question was one of three that was posed to the group to guide them through the Art Fitness Training, a flagship program hosted by the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. The program ran three consecutive Saturdays, Jan. 28-Feb. 11, and was designed to assist anyone who wanted to feel more comfortable in a museum setting, especially around contemporary art.

"It's clichÉ, but it's like the teaching-a-man-to-fish idea," Hurtado said, donning a workout jacket and pants. "The purpose of art fitness is to give the trainee skills to actually interpret it (the art) for themselves."

During each session, participants were taken to view three different works of art, and then asked a series of questions. The first question posed was, "What do you see?"

Hurtado said this question forces a viewer to actually look at a work of art.

"You look, you look again, you look closer, and maybe start to see things you've never seen," Hurtado said.

Second, "How would it be different if?"

Hurtado used to the example of the "Mona Lisa" not smiling. She said this question gives a viewer insight to why the artists did what they did, and in the mind of the viewer it destabilizes the artist's authority and opens the work up for interpretation.

Third, "What does it suggest that it is this way?"

This leads the viewer to better insights about the work of art and asks for an individual interpretation.

Participants viewed contemporary works of art such as "Big Bang Genesis," by Joshua Luther, and "My Generation Franco," by Eva Mattes.

For the FedEx piece, sculpted by Walead Beshty, the group spent about 30 minutes crowded around what many people take just seconds to glance over. Their noses almost touched the sculpture as they looked. This type of intense reflection was common for each session, located at UMOCA, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and a private residence.

"The key idea with fitness training is to acknowledge the dynamic that museumgoers feel," said Adam Price, executive director for UMOCA. "The natural tendency is to look away from the art and ask someone to help them understand — anything other than actually looking at the work."

Price said Art Fitness Training gave participants the tools to interpret art and encourage them to keep pursuing experiences with contemporary art.

"There is an expectation that you look at a piece of art for 20 seconds and understand it," Price said. "It's like going to a gym — just once is not enough. We want them to keep going and going to keep art fit."

The training was hard work, according to Hurtado, and it stretched participants to truly look at something they might not have understood before or maybe even felt uncomfortable viewing.

"I feel a better understanding," said participant Ed Blake, executive director for Habitat for Humanity in Utah. Blake brought his wife, Linda, after the two were coaxed into signing up for the training by friends.

Before the training, Blake said he could sum up his experience of the contemporary art world in one word: confusing.

Now, however, "I feel that it is OK to have my own interpretation of the art," Blake said. "I saw the art before as something flat in what it was trying to convey. And now I see it with a lot more depth and meaning."

Aubrie Broadbent, a Utah Valley University student majoring in elementary education with specialties in art, said she loves art for the way it can communicate feeling and tell a story.

"Before, contemporary art intimidated me just because it's so different than like more classical art from the Renaissance. That's what I've studied, what I'm used to," Broadbent said. "This class really helped me to not be intimidated to be something different."

She said that if everyone had the opportunity to take a class like Art Fitness Training, it would would help others appreciate beauty that usually goes unnoticed.

"If anyone has the opportunity to do something like this and put themselves out of their comfort zone, they should do it because you discover a whole new way of looking at things," Broadbent said.

Email: [email protected]