How to feel at ease in an art gallery

There you are, standing alone at the bottom of the stairs, trying to summon up the courage to step into the unknown. You haven’t visited this art gallery before, and you’re not quite sure what you might find inside. Will someone eagerly pounce on you as you walk through the door? Will it be obvious which is the art and which is a fire alarm? And what if nothing in the gallery interests you – is it rude to just turn around and leave?

Art galleries can be intimidating places, and the experience can be more daunting when you’re not sure what to expect, or don’t know what might be expected of you. However, no amount of looking at images on your computer or viewing art magazines can replace the experience of viewing the real deal.

So take a deep breath, overcome that mental barrier, and go take a look. Here are some tips to help you on your way ....

* Fear not – Galleries exist so that members of the public can come and see the art on display. Whether or not there is a tortuous stairway, an aloof gallery assistant, or a price list that makes you gasp, you’re welcome to come and take a look. It doesn’t matter if you’re casually dressed, have limited art knowledge, or moths fly from your wallet – art gallery visitors comprise an eclectic mix of students, artists, collectors, critics, socialites and browsers, with a broad range of backgrounds, life experiences and expertise. You will only look as unusual as the next person to walk through the door.

* There is no script – Unlike a trip to the movies or your local theatre, there is no established routine as to what to expect, what to do, or what to say when you walk through the door. The gallery may or may not have a reception desk, you may or may not be greeted as you enter, and the works on display may range from a single installation to a variety of works by different artists. There may be other people viewing the works, a class of children sketching or taking notes, or no one in attendance other than you. Galleries in New Zealand are usually free to attend, but public or community-run galleries may have donation boxes, or charge admission fees for special exhibitions. Sometimes works will be available to purchase; other times works will not be for sale, or may have sold before you visit. Take comfort from knowing that everyone who visits a new gallery, or sees an exhibition for the first time, will not be sure what to expect. This element of uncertainty can actually enhance the adventure of experiencing art, sharpening your senses and heightening your response to what’s on display.

* Just be normal - There are no rules as to the right way to view artworks. You don’t need to speak in a certain voice, or adopt a particular pose. There is no accepted length of time for which you should consider a work before moving to the next. You can stand as far away from a work as suits you best, or move in closer for careful inspection. There is no expectation that you will read the labels, or want to know anything more about the works than what you can see. Perhaps the only viewing practice peculiar to museums and galleries is that, in most cases, the items on display should not be touched. Otherwise, the same courtesies apply as for the majority of shopping experiences – that is, avoid taking in open containers of food or drink, check with the staff before photographing the product, and be mindful of others in the room. The person standing next to you may be the artist or owner of the work, so it is generally best to avoid expressing negative views about the art while strangers are in earshot. 
* You don’t need specialist knowledge – It’s not necessary to be an art critic, or to do any prior study or research, in order to enjoy visiting an art gallery. Some people prefer to view art without knowing anything about it, forming their own response to the work based solely on what they see. Others carry out extensive research either before or after viewing an exhibition, enjoying the ability to delve into the context in which the art was created or the methods used. Whether or not you wish to carry out your own research, the gallery itself ought to have key information about the works on display. Sometimes this information will be on wall labels, other times it will be on a sheet of paper or catalogue beside the exhibited works. If the printed information is not sufficient to answer your questions, the gallery assistant should be able to help.

* You don’t have to like the art – It is perfectly valid to walk into a gallery and decide that you don’t like, or are not interested in, any of the works on display. That doesn’t mean that the works are inherently deficient or boring – it may simply be that these works are not your thing. While there’s no shame in acknowledging the art is not to your taste, you may be surprised how beneficial it can be to nevertheless stop and take a good look at the displayed pieces. By taking the opportunity to investigate a little more closely, you may find there is something that appeals to you after all – whether it is a particular theme or creative method used, finer details of the work that you hadn’t noticed at first, or something in the artist’s statement that strikes a chord. Taking a few moments to really look at the work, and to read the information accompanying the exhibition, may reveal interesting aspects not apparent on initial impressions.

* Take a friend – Taking a friend may help you feel less self-conscious as you look around the gallery, as well as providing you with a “second opinion” about the works on display. You may be surprised how much viewing art with another person enriches your experience of what you see – your friend will bring different experiences, associations and preconceptions to the works, which may enhance your own appreciation of the show. You friend does not need to be someone who is particularly arty or clever; even viewing art with small children can provide a fresh way of seeing the works from a different perspective. Taking someone with you can also prolong your enjoyment of the exhibition, giving you opportunity to discuss the works even after you’ve left the gallery.

* It’s alright to stay silent – It’s perfectly acceptable not to say anything about the art you’re viewing – the work is there for your contemplation and enjoyment, whether or not you wish to articulate anything about it. However, if you do wish to comment on a work, try to delve at little deeper than simply stating whether or not you like it. Think about specific qualities of the work, or how it makes you feel. What emotions, memories or sensations does the work trigger for you? What physical qualities interest you – the work’s subject matter, size, colours, textures, forms or composition? Does the written material accompanying the exhibition highlight something that surprises or intrigues you? Even reading the title of the art work can add to your enjoyment of the piece.
* Stay as long or little as you wish – There is no appropriate length of time to spend looking at the works in a gallery. Some people duck in for only a few moments to check out a particular work or a label, while other people take considerable time inspecting every work and gathering as much information as they can. If you walk into an exhibition to discover it is of no interest to you, then it is absolutely fine to turn and leave. It is also common for people to make multiple return visits, to view again a work that particularly catches their interest or is one they want to acquire. Take as much or as little time as you wish, and return as many times as you like, depending on how much of what is on display is of interest to you.

* Keep going - The best way to feel comfortable with visiting art galleries is to keep doing it. Once you’ve visited a local gallery, make a point of returning in a few weeks time – while the displayed works will likely be different, the gallery itself should feel familiar. You will become increasingly more at ease with each visit. If you don’t feel comfortable visiting your local gallery, then visit galleries in other towns – there are large differences between the kinds of work exhibited and styles of display, so your experience of the range of work available will be enriched by visiting other places.

For further information contact ZIMMERMAN - www.zimmerman.co.nz / This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.