BRATTLEBORO >> Art has turned heads for centuries, be it Edouard Manet's 1865 courtesan paintings or Pablo Picasso's 1907 cubist pictures or Robert Mapplethorpe's 1988 controversial photographs. So what could the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center do to stop traffic in the seen-it-all present?
Hang a billboard in the first state in the nation to ban them.
Eye the back wall of the downtown museum — housed in a century-old former railroad station adjacent to train tracks and a busy road to neighboring New Hampshire — and you'll see a white sign with "Mad Men"-era Volkswagen-ad black letters asking, "Are You Here?"
"Highway driving is often a time when we use distractions," Brattleboro artist Jonathan Gitelson says. "We listen to the radio or another audio device or attend to our own thoughts and worries, paying little attention to the changing sights and sensations whizzing by."
In response, Gitelson has raised grant money to post the 10.5-by-22.5-foot billboard (the space-rental rate: from $600 to $800 for a month-long appearance) in more than a dozen locations in New England and upstate New York.
"'Are You Here?' is a metaphysical question meant to encourage motorists to be more fully present and mindful of their experience at the moment they encounter the message," Gitelson writes in an artist statement. "My hope is that the extreme simplicity of these billboards, and the unexpected and unexplained question they pose, will startle viewers into at least a fleeting moment of 'being here.'"
Photographs inside the Brattleboro museum show Gitelson's billboard in such places as Adams, Mass, East Hartford, Conn., and Granville, N.Y. But the most provocative image is the sign itself, and not just because it's currently displayed in a state that banned such advertising in 1968.
"It is meditation without a yoga mat or a pew," says Mara Williams, the museum's chief curator, "a mindfulness practice with a sense of humor."
Museum Director Danny Lichtenfeld wasn't sure everyone would share the feeling.
"We liked the whole billboard slant because of Vermont's issues," he says, "but I half-expected somebody to get in touch and ask, 'Where's your permit?'"
Answer: There isn't one. But for anyone concerned the sign runs afoul of state law (a 2008 case involving a "See Bellows Falls" mural led the Legislature to exempt certain art), the museum reassures the first and so far only scheduled Green Mountain showing will end next week so it can move to its biggest venue yet: Boston, where it's set to appear at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum.
The moment of "here," the billboard exhibits firsthand, is only now.