The story of Museum Sage

Museum Sage was created by writer and performer Jon Spayde in response to his wife, Laurie Phillips, being bored by just mechanically looking at a painting then reading the wall description, looking, reading, looking, reading. Jon had been studying books by the French Surrealists and, in the twinkling of an eye, used them as inspiration to come up with a whole different way to see art. A new paradigm was born.

Since the creation of Museum Sage, thousands of people have benefited from using this sacred and fun practice to experience art in a whole new way — as well as getting direction to some pretty gnarly life issues.

The art history behind Museum Sage

The immediate inspiration for Museum Sage was the outing that Andre Breton and Alberto Giacometti made to the Saint-Ouen flea market in 1934, recounted in Breton’s L’Amour Fou (Mad Love) of 1937. As they strolled in the market in a state of dreamy receptivity, Giacometti found himself drawn to an enigmatic metal mask that might have been used in fencing, and Breton to a long ladle with a tiny backpiece on which it rested, the backpiece having the shape of a shoe. 

A little while after bringing them home, the artists realized that the mask and ladle were “speaking” to them. The mask helped Giacometti find forms to complete the face of a figural sculpture he was working on, and the ladle, with its shoe-backpiece and its resemblance to a ballet slipper, catalyzed in Breton the childhood memory of hearing the story of Sleeping Beauty and her glass slipper. 

This ability of chance objects, seized upon without forethought, to answer questions and evoke personal memories suggested to us that encounters with artworks or historical objects could be similarly productive, if we could induce in inquirers a similar kind of reverie — turn them, that is, into temporary Surrealists. The dreamlike state created by inviting the Museum Sage practitioner to tune into their other senses and helping her or him through the museum’s space has its roots in Surrealist oneiricism. Our wandering also pays homage to those offspring of Surrealist flanerie, the Situationist dérive and the contemporary exploration of mind and space called psychogeography.

We realized that we wanted to initiate the entire process — the choosing of the section of the museum in which the Museum Sage session would take place — in an aleatory way, by having the inquirer close his or her eyes and choose a gallery and artwork number. Thus we uphold the Cagean principle, enunciated by the great Los Angeles performance artist Rachel Rosenthal (and suitable as a motto for all of Museum Sage) that “chance knows what it’s doing.”  

— Jon Spayde