wanted: decent docents

In December I went to two very different art shows.  The first was a Wanda Koop exhibition at the Richmond Art Gallery, featuring Koop’s drawings of faces instead of her normal landscapes.  The show included some of her sketchbooks and inspirations as well.

The second show was a specially arranged viewing at the new private art gallery in Chinatown, owned by Bob Rennie.  In order to visit the art gallery you have to make an appointment for a specific date and have your name on a list to even get in.  A special curator gives you a tour of the show. Lots of organizational homework, but  no charge to get in.  The show was all works by Mona Hatoum, who does large scale works about politics and place.  My particular favourite was one called Homebound, which involved a number of household objects lighting up in turn.

However, I don’t want to review either show here.  What struck me was the lost opportunity for real engagement with the artwork.  In each gallery was a volunteer docent who spoke about the work.  I don’t mean to criticize either one, since both were at high end of docents I have encountered.  The Richmond Art Gallery docent explained what she knew about the artwork and seemed keen to make a connection with us.  However, I certainly got the feeling that she hadn’t been given a lot of information in the first place, and she was a bit overly concerned with protecting the work (from my leaning on a case or from photography of any kind.)

At the Rennie Museum, the docent there was extremely well-informed, and had art school background. She explained the history of the museum’s building, as well as prefacing her talk with the warning that Hatoum preferred for people to approach the work without preconceptions, thus limiting the amount she could say.  However, I felt a huge lost opportunity here, because of the quality of people in our group. We had artists, collectors, curators, art teachers, art bloggers and writers.  If we could have begun a real discussion on any one piece it would have been amazing.


Once you finish art school it seems that you have to work really hard to find a chance to seriously discuss art.  It would be wonderful if art museums could take on more of that role.  Art is not meant to be only viewed, it needs to be experienced and interacted with. Usually shows are created by curators with great enthusiasm.  That enthusiasm needs to be communicated to the viewers of the show.  Getting people engaged in shows requires either extensive supplementary material (headsets, written materials, videos) or better still:  excellent docents who are trained not only in explanation but exploration.  Perhaps to achieve this, docents would need to be extensively trained and paid.  But the results could be a deep appreciation of the art.

P.S. I apologize for not posting in the past month. I have enjoyed blogging so much that it got me started on a big creative writing project which has become an obsession for me.  However I am hearby committing to posting every week to 10 days.  For 2010, I am planning some studio visits which will help me to explore my own fascination with studios and studio practice.

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