Unwelcome in the gallery

Art gallery volunteer at work.


I have complained before about the lack of decent docents in art galleries. (I am speaking about regional galleries, which are funded by municipal governments, and not commercial galleries.) I understand that many galleries use volunteers and there is not enough funding to pay fulltime staff, but I wonder if this is not a chicken and egg situation. There is nobody in an art gallery/museum because people do not feel welcome there. And since attendance is low, there is no expanding the gallery’s programs.
Recently I went with a friend to a regional gallery, which showcases well-known artists. The only interaction we had with the woman working there was when she hissed at us not to touch the painting. It was as if she was watching us and waiting to spring into action as soon as we neared the artwork. For the record, neither I nor anyone I have been with has ever touched a painting, but being involved in the arts sometimes we like to get quite close to determine the materials or process.  In this same gallery, I have been told not to touch a display table, because it was fragile, this table had a glass case enclosing some sketchbooks and small paintings, and to examine the materials you almost had to lean on it.  Would it not be better to get durable display cases? And would it surprise you to know that whenever I go there, I’m the only one in the gallery?
On the other hand, in large art galleries or museums I’ve had some delightful experiences with security guards. At the Vancouver Art Gallery, one security guard was so delighted with Jim Campbell’s LED “paintings” that he kept encouraging visitors to look at it from his favourite viewpoint. At the Musée d’art Contemporain in Montréal, I’ve had long chats with guards who were both friendly and happy to be asked questions about the art or artists. I assume that the person who spends hours in the gallery has more knowledge than I do, and seek out that knowledge.
I consider this difference in attitude is really an attitude about art. Some people clearly side with the artist or artwork and consider themselves as guards who protect the artwork at all costs. However they never consider that their negativism might alienate people from entering or returning to the gallery. Most galleries are daunting, with their hushed atmospheres, white walls, high culture and mysterious artworks.  And they are scary enough without adding Dobermans disguised as matrons of the arts.
As an artist I would rather have people touch my art than walk by it. I prefer engagement to indifference, and touching to ignoring. I have the advantage of working in resin, but I can’t believe that one thumbprint is going to cause a painting to disintegrate.  Like the many friendly guards I have met, I believe that art is for the people and the more people in the gallery the better. We understand that displaying the art in pristine surroundings is not the aim, the aim is to get the most people into the gallery, interacting with the artwork.  And the future of the gallery depends on it. 
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5 thoughts on “Unwelcome in the gallery

  1. Agreed, and have you noticed how quiet art galleries are? Hushed tones and reverential postures are the norm. I wish that there was more laughter and loud talking. Some music would be nice as well.

  2. I absolutely agree with you, MAT. Particularly when you bring kids into art galleries — it was a bit like tiptoeing into a funeral – "shh — don't touch — shh — no no — shhh". Hard to introduce kids to art in the "no fun" zone.We've managed to make libraries fun — at least at universities — by adding coffee pubs, help centres and discussion groups — maybe the docents are those same old librarian ladies who used to shush us in the libraries

  3. Thanks Kate, I'm always trying to make people less fearful of art, starting with kids. Perhaps we can improve the galleries, like your university libraries, and then send those ladies to work at airport security.

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