Slow Food: a model for the arts and culture sector?

Capay heirloom tomatoes at Slow Food Nation

In 1986, a McDonald’s opened near the historic Spanish Steps in Rome. It was the inciting incident that prompted culinary writer Carlo Petrini to launch Slow Food, a grassroots movement and counter-revolution to the fast food industry, which had ‘revolutionized’ dining beginning in the early twentieth century. I’ve been wondering the past couple years whether the ‘high arts’ sphere in the US might benefit from modeling some of Slow Food’s strategies. For example:

  • Through festivals and events, Slow Food connects everyday people (not just ‘major donors’ or ‘underserved youth’) directly with the farmers and artisans from their community because it believes if you have a relationship with your local poultry farmer, and understand how he raises his birds, you may be more likely to give him your business rather than Tyson.
  • Slow Food knows that many taste buds have become accustomed to fast food so it helps adults and kids reawaken their senses and study all aspects of food by offering Taste Education events that are an integral and enjoyable aspect of what they do (as opposed to supplementary and pedantic, patronizing, or cursory). 
  • Slow Food values what you do in your own kitchen as much as what Alice Waters does at Chez Panisse. It tries to encourage (rather than ignore or dismiss) your inner Alice Waters.  Slow Food restaurants are but one component of a comprehensive strategy for changing the relationship between people and food. 

Indeed, to fight the impact of big agribusiness Slow Food’s primary strategy was not to open upscale restaurants and send out brochures announcing: “A world-class meal featuring olive oil-soaked ladotiri cheese from Greece, lentils from Abruzzi, sausages made from Sienese wild boar raised in Tuscany, and a dessert featuring Vesuvian apricots – $140 per person.”

If it had, one can imagine the implicit message to the people tossing the brochure in the trashcan on their way to grab a burger at the diner on the corner might have been: “We think you will probably feel more comfortable eating somewhere else.” 

Here’s what I see:  Plenty of Boomers and others who have ‘no time’ for the ballet are spending plenty of time growing their own herbs; browsing farmers markets, buying organic cheeses, artisanal breads, and heirloom fruits and vegetables; and preparing gourmet feasts in their Viking-stove-equipped kitchens. Others are spending the equivalent of tickets to the ballet (in time and money) dining at Slow Food restaurants. While it’s hard to know how much of this gastronomic enthusiasm can be credited to Slow Food (as opposed to other factors), the list of accomplishments on its Web site would appear to indicate that Slow Food is making headway with its revolution through food.

Can we say the same about the ‘arts and culture sector’ – particularly the ‘high end’ of it? We’ve created more organizations, but have we brought more people over to the arts cause? And what is our cause, anyway? If, like Carlo Petrini in 1989, we are faced with the difficult reality that there is declining appreciation for what we do, might we need to focus our efforts on changing the relationship between people and art? If so, can the arts achieve that goal with its current strategies?

Heirloom Tomatoes Image available under a Creative Commons license, found at Wikimedia Commons, & originally posted to Flickr by mercedesfromtheeighties at

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  1. says

    Your questions are very interesting. I can not answer them but I just wanted to say I find the slow food idea pretty cool. That´s the way I try to eat just because that´s the only way I feel well with. I just can´t eat fast food, it makes me feel tired.



  2. says

    Yes you are right Diane. Its all about familiarity that comes from a relationship.

    There is more knowledge about food and more promotional devices like celebrity chefs, cooking shows and reality TV with a food theme (whether obese, dieting or cooking it as a competition).

    But more importantly (maybe at the same time or even partially as a result of this) there is greater value place upon good food, dining and the ritual of sharing food, let alone talking about it.

    The relationship with the artform, the artists and the art needs to be rekindled for the majority of people.

    But I think the other element that the rekindling of our love of food is DIY. Doing it yourself and participation.

    As you will be aware we have known for a while that previous participation or education in any of the arts is a strong influence upon current or future attendance or involvement.


  3. Tommer Peterson says

    I learned this last week that Pacific Northwest Ballet here in Seattle has begun featuring short performances by amateur dance groups in the lobbies during intermission in an effort to get dance “off its pedestal.” Haven’t actually seen this myself, but liked the idea.

  4. says

    Thank you for these wonderful thoughts! I think there’s a lot of similarity here. The thing that has to happen, though, is that we arts folks have to let go of the notion that we are the high priests of art and nobody comes to art except through us. Another analogy, I think, is to education. It used to be that teachers possessed knowledge and students came to teachers to receive the knowledge. Now, knowledge is available to everyone, and the role of the teacher is as curator of the student’s information — teaching the student how to analyze and evaluate knowledge, not just giving knowledge. The arts can be accessed by anyone, at any time, and it’s up to us to encourage that, rather than moan about the fact that people aren’t coming. The slow food movement has encouraged relationships with food and local producers — but it’s also increased an appreciation for fine chefs who prepare food well. I see nothing to lose in adopting these principles and much to gain!

  5. says

    Your argument is a bit confusing, Diane. You suggest that Slow Food is not about expensive dinners, and then describe people buying heirloom tomatoes and using fancy cooking equipment. As someone who lives in an area where local food and farming is a big part of life, I’ve seen a big difference between the $100/plate farm-to-table dinners and the raucous, delicious meals that go late into the night at the homes of farmers and friends.

    Slow Food attracts the kind of wealthy, white, older people who are traditional arts audiences. I’m more interested in projects like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (, which work to energize other segments of the population toward healthy eating and relationships to food. Do we really need more resources to help support traditional arts audiences, who have all the advantages and choice in the world? Or should we being pursuing more models like StrebLabs and the Food Revolution, which connect to people who love art (and food) but not in the wrapper we’ve traditionally offered?

    I realize this is likely a “both and” question. But I’m a little tired of looking at more ways to connect with the same folks.

    • says

      Nina – you make excellent points and I agree with you. I think I may have not expressed my own point very well, however. First, Slow Food is NOT primarily about expensive meals; it is much more about “delicious meals that go late into the night at the homes of farmers and friends.” And this is exactly the kind of strategy and vibe and enthusiasm and relationship with art that I think the arts and culture sector needs to cultivate. The point about heirloom tomatoes and viking stoves was not to highlight this as the goal; rather it was to point out that Slow Food is actually reaching the very people that the so-called ‘fine arts’ have historically reached and are depserately trying to hold onto/bring back/cultivate. Put another way, I think we may be losing even our so called ‘traditional audiences’ to the gardening, cooking, and the gastronomical arts – and I think it’s not unreasonable to think that Slow Food (along with the Food Network) may be part of the reason. But, yes – let us cultivate younger, more diverse audiences rather than focusing all of our efforts on those who are wealthy, educated and hang with the right crowd. Jamie Oliver is a great model. And so is Elizabeth Streb, who I’ve written about for a few years now. And I would reiterate that the Slow Food movement under Carlo Petrini is a grassroots movement for all. Thanks again for the excellent points.

  6. Martin Cohn says

    Excellent point, Diana.

    Perhaps instead of trying to be hip, the arts should promote themselves as “slow” or unhip. A good friend of mine, Shawn Fraser, believed that the arts have done a terrible job telling the public about how they are unique. In a world of endless content, software and downloads, a ballet or music performance is one of the very few things we’ll experience that happen in real time and can never by completely duplicated. We need to shout this from the rooftops. We have, like Slow Food, authenticity on our side.

    • says

      Martin, I think you hit the nail on the head–twice. Even as an artist myself, living in NYC, I feel “unhip” at art openings and imagine that feeling magnified for those who don’t live here and/or who aren’t artists. It’s intiimidating! So I think that “slow”/”unhip” angle would be really welcome in bringing arts outside of select circles (as other commenters have suggested). Good point also about the authenticity, something I plan to tell my Art Appreciation students. Thanks for sharing these thoughts!

  7. says

    I think one of the core lessons that something like the slow food movement offers the traditional cultural sector is the power of “belonging” to a community of practice. Enthusiasm and curiosity are as valued as knowledge and experience; a shared language encourages conversations between amateur and professional and you can feel both comfortably competent and aspirational at the same time. Oh, and it’s fun and pleasurable. The Walker Art Center’s Open Field project last summer attempted to create a place outside the institution for these kinds of communities of practice, exchange and knowledge. We are still digesting all that we learned from the experiment and are paying even closer attention to how participants are defining the experience. Deborah Fries wrote a lovely and thoughtful article about it this fall on (

  8. says

    Hi Diane!
    Great post. I love your parallel to the slow food movement – you are right, it really has revolutionised the way we think about food and what we eat (and where it comes from, how it is prepared etc etc.). I think most relevant to us in the arts sector is analysing how the slow food movement as an ‘experience-provider’ has successfully addressed the challenges still faced by so many arts organisations today, namely:
    RELEVANCE: how to be (and remain) relevant and interesting to people who may / may not already be familiar with the experience being sold / provided
    RELATIONSHIPS: how to create, nurture and maintain lasting relationships through community events and personal introductions / connections
    ACCESSIBILITY & ENGAGEMENT: how to engage, educate, and facilitate participation with audiences from all walks of life
    But I wonder if perhaps what’s really stopping us creating a renaissance for the arts similar to that of the slow food movement is convention? The problem with the arts (and let’s say for argument’s sake classical music) is that if we were to get back to our ‘grass roots’ like our slow food friends, we’d still be presenting concerts in the drawing rooms of the bourgeoisie. To move forward I think that rather than continuing to worship this mould, we perhaps need to concentrate greater energies on creating a sustainable two-pronged approach – on one hand preserving high art in all its glory, and on the other breaking it down to present it (or incarnations of it) outside the box – with the aim to increase the visibility, accessibility, reach and appreciation of our beloved artforms and ensure their continued relevance.
    All the best,

  9. says

    Hear, hear! And if we could extend the analogy to reading, perhaps we can retrain readers (from an early age) to stop and enjoy the “flavor” of well-chosen words, rather than expecting explosions on every other page.

    (says one who has started a vegetable garden, tapped my own and only maple tree for syrup, built a compost bin, and dedicated a book to Alice Waters, all in the past year)

  10. Armando Torres Chibrás says

    Congratulations! Great proposal. Interesting challenges. Perhaps it is interesting to observe that El Sistema of Youth Orchestras from Venezuela, under the visionary leadership of Dr. José Antonio Abreu has brought more people over to the arts cause that any other organization in that country, even beyond their national boundaries, creating an international movement based in the social transformation of individuals, families and communities through the power of music.

  11. says

    There is so much that is relevant about the slow food and local food movement for artists and arts organizations. Last summer we started a CSA (Community Supported Art) program to directly connect artists and patrons. We were surprised and thrilled that the program took off as quickly as it did – the response was overwhelming! In retrospect, we’ve identified a few key elements that we think contributed to the success:

    1. The simplicity of the model – the CSA model is easy to understand and people knew how it worked and what to expect because of their experience with food CSAs
    2. The ownership and engagement that people feel when they are a member of a small group
    3. The curation and selection of the artists – we really found that many people (particularly people who already love local food) are hungry to connect with local artists and fill their homes and their time with local experiences. But they are intimidated by the gallery scene and unsure of how to go about beginning relationships with artists. The CSA gave them an easy way of experiencing art and artists that were new to them without having to go it alone.

    This experience has really reinforced for me that those new patrons and audience members ARE out there and they want to be part of the community – but it has to be simple, engaging and fun! And those are the things that the local food movement has done so well.

    If you’re interested you can find more information here:

    • Danielle Loebs says

      This is absolutely wonderful, Laura! I heard the about the CSA model as applied to a theater group called “Stolen Chair” in New York and have since been trying to find more information (especially financial) on its implementation. Though visual and performing arts may generate different types of “shares” for members, I eagerly await the online guide mentioned on your website!

  12. Danielle Loebs says

    I’ve never commented before, but I found this a wonderful launching point for discussion. Speaking as a 24-year-old theater maker from the base of California’s Sierra Foothills, I openly admit that my perspective is limited. However, I found the comments strikingly relevant to my current thoughts about theater.

    When I think about the relationship between food, art and culture in America, I am reminded of Michael Pollan’s introduction to his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. When discussing what he calls our “national eating disorder” he claims that “as a relatively new nation drawn from many different immigrant populations, each with its own culture of food, Americans have never had a single, strong, stable culinary tradition to guide us.” This lack of tradition makes us bewildered at the barrage of choices in our supermarkets. To ease this choice, often what we decide to feed ourselves is influenced by the latest diet fads, the newest assurances from the corn industry or simply by what is fastest and most convenient. Could a similar stance be said of our artistic tradition?

    The rise of the regional theater in America is only a few decades old but the LORTs I’ve grown up with have long since abandoned locally-based theater in lieu of previously produced Broadway musicals with touring, New York-based actors. While Broadway could be argued as the “single, strong, stable tradition” for American theater culture, its own history shows otherwise. Mirroring the changes in our food industry, Broadway has become more corporatized and more commercialized in production; it has also become less culturally reflective and relevant in content. Since the LORTs take their cues from Broadway, they have immediately followed suit.

    The only thing “regional” about the regional theaters in Northern California is their geography. Everything else comes pre-packaged and approved by the Broadway machine and is then adapted for the LORT facilities. In my area specifically, the high school and community theaters produce the same shows as the LORTs, with the exception of using local actors and smaller budgets. To return to the Slow Food analogy, I see this as “processed” theater. In the end, I have as much connection to Spamalot as I have to SPAM.

    To move away from a centralized, processed model is what is necessary to create a “Slow Food” culture in American theater. Stories presented in community theaters should be rooted in their own sense of place, applicable to their own issues and current events, and should allow the audience a hand in the process as well as the final production. (I think Bronwyn stated this point broadly and more eloquently in the above post).

    It should be noted that participation in the Slow Food movement is a political statement. So too is participation in a movement for locally based arts and culture. I think that the more effort made at the grassroots level for local cultural representation in one’s community, the better.

    My work is devoted to creating a sustainable theater model that is tailored to my community. Thus far I have found the thoughts on this blog helpful and inspiring. Any additional advice and feedback for creating a better local theater would be most welcome.

    • says

      Danielle, as a New Yorker I’ve also been distressed to see the processed theater you mention (and I love the Spamalot/SPAM analogy!). I’m a visual artist, but my girlfriend is an actress off-Broadway, which is just about the only place you can see original theater anymore. I like your thoughts about a community-based sustainable theater model–good luck and happy new year.

    • says


      Thanks very much for your post. I’m really glad you felt compelled to share your comments, which strike me as spot-on. The resident theater movement was begun as an alternative to Broadway, not an adjunct to it; yet over the years it has been increasingly accused of commercialization and from creating “McTheater” (a phrase coined originally, I believe, by Robert Brustein). I will drop you an email to continue the conversation. Thanks, again, for your insightful comments – and to all who posted. A conversation to be continued …

      • Danielle Loebs says

        Thank you, Diane!

        I would love to continue the conversation via e-mail. This is the first I’ve heard of Robert Brustein, but by the power of the mighty Internet I have already been able to read through some of his writings. There is so much to learn, and places to discuss knowledge and ideas on the topic are incredibly valuable. I’m grateful you’ve set up this blog and created such great topics for discussion!

  13. says

    Interesting thoughts. I believe a lack of engagement in the arts stems from normal, everyday people being disconnected from their own creativity (which we all are born with then are taught to ignore as we grow older) That’s why I’ve started my organization – to help bring the arts back down to earth and help regular people build their creative literacy skills. Only then will people start to apply their own creativity to their lives AND appreciate others’ expressions of creativity

  14. says

    You don’t mention it in your article, so maybe you don’t know about the Slow Art Day (www.slowartday,com)conceived a few years ago as a way of getting people to slow down and engage with visual art with the goal of empowering them to trust their own observations and emotions rather than quickly digesting the 100 words on a wall label or listening to the few seconds worth of celebrity chat on an audio guide before moving on to the next masterpiece. People all over the world (53 venues currently) have signed up to host Slow Art on April 16. They will select five works of art at any museum or gallery, invite their friends to spend 10 minutes looking at and thinking about each one, and then everyone gathers for lunch at a nearby restaurant to talk about the experience. I’ll be a Slow Art host in Cincinnati this year and am looking forward to the luxury of slowing down the museum experience and opening up to what the art has to tell me. As a museum professional, I respect the curatoral voice, but as an educator and art-lover, I am most engaged by the immediate experience or art.

  15. says

    Diane and friends:

    Community-based artists and arts organizations invented the “Slow Culture” movement long before Carlo Petrini (God bless him) sounded the trumpets for the Slow Food parade. One could even claim that the British community cultural development organization Jubilee Arts planted the early seeds for slow food in the early 80’s when they got the bright idea to connect striking coal miners and new immigrants by creating an annual foodways festival in Birmingham in the early 80’s. Supporting indigenous creators whether they are making food or art is a cornerstone strategy for building caring, capable and sustainable communities. To Danielle’s point, my experience is that when the stories on stage (or on the walls or screen or in the concert hall) speak to the stories rising up in local communities then people respond– not just as audience members, but as co-creators of the evolving community cultural ecosystem.

    • Danielle Loebs says

      “Co-creators of the evolving community ecosystem.” What a beautiful phrase and an admirable goal to set for one’s audience. Thank you for the input, Bill!

  16. says

    I see that Cate has been the first to point out the Slow Art movement, which seems to be the logical extension of this article. I am a slow art day host in Florence, Italy – I did it last year and will do it again in April 2011.

    Slow Art is just the kind of “sitting down at a raucous table with friends” experience that Nina Simon suggests is true to the concept of Slow Food. You look at art, then you talk about it over food. It can be loud and fun if done well.

    I think the lack of engagement with the arts that Michelle mentions above in her comment is so true, although some arts marketers, museum designers, and bloggers are working to resolve the gap between people and the creative sector. A lack of engagement of this sort does not exist at all with food, which is why launching slow food, and getting 20+ people to discuss the phenomenon in a blog post, is not so difficult. We all eat, so we all talk about food. But we don’t all do, or look at art. We need help with that. Most people don’t feel comfortable talking about art because they are afraid to look stupid. One move in the right direction is to create a forum or place in which people can feel comfortable expressing themselves about art without judgement. Slow Art Day is just once a year, but it does just that, and in so doing, it opens up a world of possibilities.

  17. says

    Hello: Thank you for this wonderful post! I founded the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra six years ago with the concept of personalizing what we do and providing a space to be present with music. This year we have sold out almost every concert and salon we have done. We build relationships through the language of music. We have music tastings in wine bars. I love the concept of the Slow Food mvt and was talking about how it relates to what ROCO has created with Blanton Alspaugh from Soundmirror. We were discussing the value of recordings and how they cannot ever really capture the essence of ‘being there’ live, the consumption of the live energy that is unique to performance art. We are not trying to recreate Mozart. The people in ROCO are unique, as well. Our performance of Mozart is its own special thing, just like a master chef’s dish is unique, even if it is a time-tested recipe. Thank you for launching this great discussion. I love to talk about ART ACROSS THE SENSES.


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