Being a fearless gallery visitor: 5 suggestions

Being a Fearless Gallery Visitor_London_Tate First Gallery.JPG

By Ava Hansen

Picture this…

You approach the looming doors of the art gallery – promising oodles of paintings and sculptures with very few explanation panels and possibly including some modern or abstract art. Your enthusiastic friend who’s enticed you to come along to see the cutting-edge temporary exhibit quickly darts off to find the special exhibition room.

You stick together for a while, but your friend just takes so damn long at a 5 x 5 inch portrait that you think looks plain ugly, so you wander aimlessly through the gallery rooms. Do you stare at the line work, the colours, the paintings you like, the paintings you don’t like, is it okay to not like a masterpiece, what are you supposed to understand about the art?

I have been both of these friends. Below are some of the patterns I have subconsciously integrated in to my gallery visits that make it more enjoyable.

  1. Look to the gallery map first. Half of what can be overwhelming in a museum is the organization of the place itself. Galleries can vary in size from one room to twenty. As a general rule of thumb, I know I take about 20-45 minutes per room and don’t expect to enjoy myself after 2 hours in the gallery.

  2. Choose the rooms you want to visit or pieces you want to see. To cut down the feeling of being overwhelmed upon entering a gallery (akin to stepping in to a shopping mall on Black Friday), make a list (like your shopping list), and go straight to those rooms (aisles).  At the same time, leave room for the possibility that you’ll come across the perfect work (dress) that demands your attention and a change of plans.

  3. How to anticipate what will interest you most. What rooms you choose to visit will depend on what you will find most interesting. In turn, that usually depends on a few things…

    • The story. What is the story of the painting, the social context in which it was created or that it represents.

    • The artist. As a rule of thumb, we humans seems to be most interested in stories about people. If you research a bit about an artist, then thinking about their state of mind, available materials, or the historical context of where and when it was made might alter how you think about a work of art.

    • The materials. Is there a type of media you have familiarity with? Often you can better understand the process of making the art if you have experience with those materials and hence it is more interesting to think about how it was made.

  4. Slow down and breathe. There’s no need to see it all, and there’s no rush to “understand” or “appreciate” a work at once. Many people who study art will sit and stare at it for 10 minutes to 1hr before they feel ready to move on. What are they waiting for? To notice things they haven’t noticed yet.

    Have you ever had a really odd flavoured donut and then tried making someone understand how it tastes? Tried to explain how the bacon flavour kind of worked with the maple, but the pepper sprinkles were just too much? When you look at a painting, try explaining what you’re seeing to yourself, as you would when explaining a bacon-maple donut with pepper sprinkles. Now do you notice some aspects you might have missed before? Don’t worry if you do sit and check out the painting for up to an hour - only a few people will judge and you and, who knows, you might end up having some great conversations about the piece (or donuts).

  5. Chat with people in the gallery about what they see. Recently I went to a gallery with a friend and we took turns explaining how we looked at a painting to each other. Make sure you take turns and aren’t just getting explained to the whole time – no fun. You can also ask the security guards in the rooms who are probably bored stiff, but have a lot of opinions about the paintings they get to look at for hours a day and are likely happy for a change in duties. This is one of my new favourite ways to experience an art gallery.

Overall – be yourself, relax, and enjoy yourself!

Hope that gives you food for thought! Another interesting read on this topic is this New York Times article.

My current creative inspiration is Käthe Kolwitz. She’s not a contemporary artist, but her works are timeless! She focuses on emotion and individuals, depicting their personalities in how they relate to other characters in the artwork.

To see what’s inspiring me lately, follow my Google Arts & Culture account.