For some, going to an art museum or gallery is like stepping into a foreign country. You don’t speak the language, you can never find the bathroom, and feelings of disorientation make you wish you had just gone to the beach. Whether we pace, race, or plod our way through, we all approach viewing art differently.
As a foreigner or a seasoned art aficionado at one time or another we all have left an art experience feeling indifferent, disconnected, or even disappointed. Maybe the work wasn’t your favorite or you didn’t understand the exhibition statement. Maybe it was crowded or you were just hungry and found it difficult to ponder Abstract Expressionism on an empty stomach. Who could?
The reasons aren’t important here nor is the venue or even the art. If you truly want to get something meaningful from your time, attention and in some cases price of admission, it’s up to you to approach art as a two way street. Here are 5 ways to make the most out of your next art experience.
1. Be curious. Talk to someone, anyone.
If you do just one thing to impact your experience, don’t ignore the questions that pop into your head.
Depending on the venue, seek out a docent, artist, gallery assistant, or hey that security guard looks nice… and ask your questions. They want to tell you more about the work, the process, or the great story art can have.
If you don’t particularly feel drawn to the work, focus on other aspects such as the materials, the presentation, or the structure of the show itself – how it was developed or selected. Your curiosity doesn’t even have to be about the art itself. Maybe you wonder about the lighting or the building’s architecture. Find out when the next exhibition or lecture is coming up. By being curious and seeking out more information, your experience immediately moves beyond the surface level of what everybody walking in can encounter.
2. Get out from behind the camera.
Our cellphones have become a culturally accepted appendage and the camera on them a temptation to capture our every meal and movement. However, speed walking through an exhibition snapping photos without appreciation or reflection will not serve your experience. Perhaps compulsive photo taking and selfie shots are attempts to connect with the artwork when one doesn’t know how else to. One way the RijksMusuem in Amsterdam is tackling this is through an initiative called #startdrawing, which challenges the public to put down their cameras and pick up a pencil.
This is not to say technology should not be explored in art institutions. 3D imagery, projection mapping, and virtual museum tours are just a few of the exciting ways technology is being used to enhance the connection between the viewer and the artwork.
3. Actively engage.
Let’s put that phone to better use.
Use it to make note of an artist, new medium, or technique you want to look up later. Read up on the exhibition and/or artist before you go. In doing so you will find yourself more interested when you view it in person and can share the bits of knowledge with the person you are with.
I’ve started carrying a little notebook along with me dedicated to jotting down artists names, thoughts, questions the work provoked, and quick sketches. This has encouraged a more meaningful interaction and brought forward new inspiration and inquiry. Actively engaging in small ways will deepen your personal understanding and appreciation of the work.
4. Embrace the brain exercise.
To reap the benefits viewing art has to offer takes a different kind of workout. The museum and gallery space calls us to slow down and consider.
If we’re open to it, art allows for some pretty amazing mental stretches by challenging our ideas, our understanding of the world, and forcing us to confront uncomfortable things about ourselves and society. This video made by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance reminds us of the power and joy the museum space can have to our being and our mind. One woman in particular says she walks up to artwork and tells it to “Make me work on something!”.
5. Forget what’s expected.
Art venues can sometimes be intimidating in their scale, subject matter or expected social norms. From an early age we are taught to be quiet, respectful, appreciate famous works and for heaven’s sakes don’t touch anything!
These expectations can make for a slightly uncomfortable interaction with art. You still can’t touch anything, but you can approach art with a lightness that breaks free from the expectation that one must know everything to appreciate it. Only the artist can truly understand the complexities of their concept. Our job as the viewer is to seek out that understanding; ultimately we will come away with our own unique perspective.
In the end, art is meant to be experienced, questioned, loved, and hated. Sometimes it’s just paint on a canvas, a toilet on the wall, or a face in a photo, but given a chance that stroke of paint, the eyes in the photo, and even the toilet will begin to mean something.
What it means is up to you.