WORCESTER — The Worcester Art Museum has some impressive nudes in its collection. A 16th-century oil painting of a reclining Venus stealing Cupid’s bow. An Edward Weston platinum print of a woman posing by a pine bough. A William Morris Hunt painting titled “The Bathers.”On Thursday afternoons, the museum also has a live nude: a model who strikes poses in its galleries.
Since 2013, the museum has been offering nude-figure drawing classes once a week. While nude-figure drawing is a rite of passage for fine arts majors in studios, this appears to be the only museum in the country to offer it in its galleries to the general public. The museum provides pencils, paper, drawing boards, erasers, and a live model — all for the price of general admission (which is free for members, and for all visitors in August).
Attendees can come and go from the classes between the hours of 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., though director of audience engagement Adam Rozan said that most stay for the full three hours. Encouraging people to linger in the galleries is one of the main goals of the program.
“The averages are really low for the time people spend looking at artwork in galleries,” Rozan said. “It’s like 3 to 6 seconds. People are often looking for specific works, so they’ll stop and say, ‘Oh, that’s a Picasso,’ and they’ll look at it and then keep going.
Rozan wanted to find a way to increase the average time spent looking, and also to make the experience more active. “Galleries have become a very passive space. People move through and are passively looking at art. And why? Who decided that?”
Leadership at the museum is trying to un-decide that in a number of ways. They’ve brought live cats to the museum as part of its “Meow” exhibit. They have regular arms and armor demonstrations. They tried holding meditation sessions in the galleries (a failed program, Rozan said, but one he’s thrilled they tried). In August, they’ll start hosting yoga classes.
The nude-figure drawing classes are one of the most successful and long-term programs aimed at making the museum experience more active. The first class was held, fittingly, near a nude: “Venus Disarming Cupid,” by Paolo Veronese. Now, classes rotate from gallery to gallery, so that visitors who come back can get a new experience. The museum has tracked over 2,000 participants in the classes, many of whom are repeat visitors. Some come nearly every week.
“It’s become a kind of community,” Rozan said. “During breaks the model will be talking to the regulars.”
One of the models, some regulars, and a few newcomers convened on a recent Thursday: 15 people gathered on stools in total silence, bent over drawing boards. A 60-year-old model named James sat naked and still on a sofa, hands clasped around his knees, against a backdrop of Renaissance paintings. James held the pose for several minutes, as participants drew, erased, re-drew, shaded, and drew. Then a museum administrator called “Break!” James stretched his arms and slipped into a blue robe.
John Garton, a professor of art history at Clark University, said he liked this particular gallery. He comes often, so he appreciates the frequent rotation. He said he’s usually looking at the model more than the art, but that it’s nice to pause sometimes and look around. “I tell all my students to come,” he said.
Rozan said that many students from the colleges in the surrounding area do take advantage of the free classes when school’s in session. In the summer, though, the crowd was mostly local professionals and retirees.
“We’re all part of the original crew,” Louis Burwick, of Worcester, said, gesturing at a group around him. “Us, Joseph, Sharon over there. We’ve been coming since 2013.” Burwick is retired, and tries to come weekly except during the winter, when he’s in Florida. He was delighted when he first heard about the classes; he’s always been an artist, but his career led him away from it. “This was a great way to get back into it,” he said.
James removed the robe and re-positioned, this time in a sort of yoga pose, and people picked up their boards. Silence fell.
The complexity of the human figure is easy to forget, until you’re drawing it. The lines and shadows are tough to translate onto the page, and the interconnected angles are maddening. If the placement of a knee is off, you might find yourself erasing a hand. The dimensions that seem almost photoreal in great works of art can look more like glorified stick figures, if you’re out of practice.
“I love to draw and paint, and the human figure is the most difficult thing to draw,” Steven Perkins, of Holden, said. “It’s a real challenge.”
It gets easier, with concentration. The model’s body starts to look more like its composite parts, and some of those parts might start to resemble themselves on the page. Perkins, and a number of others who frequent the class, draw confidently and skillfully.
Perhaps that’s one reason why people keep coming back. “It takes many, many countless tries,” Perkins said, “to get better at it.”