Visiting an art gallery need not be a scary ordeal

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

McIntosh Gallery

Western visual arts professor Madeline Lennon often found herself astonished when teaching her first year visual arts class, as most students had never stepped foot in a gallery.

“When I asked if anyone had been to an art gallery, only a few hands went up,” Lennon said. “And that’s because their parents brought them.”

Many people, even the most artistic, assume venturing into an art gallery will be a daunting experience " but it doesn’t have to be.

Lennon suggested checking the website of a particular gallery in advance to see what events or collections are coming up. These can range from the party atmosphere of gallery openings to the subdued lecture feel of artist talks, both of which bring new context to the art within the gallery’s walls.

In addition, the galleries themselves are full of information to explain artists’ motivations and inspirations.

“It’s not just what’s on the wall, but what’s in the space itself,” McIntosh Gallery curator Catherine Elliot Shaw said, adding brochures and gallery staff are helpful resources.

Most large galleries also make use of technology to aid visitors in their understanding of the artwork.

“Many works have what looks like a little phone on the wall with a screen. You touch the screen to see [video footage],” she explained. “At some galleries there is even a number you can dial on your cell phone to hear someone comment on the works.”

While some people expect a dress code, Lennon said most art galleries are meant to be informal.

“You can go in whatever outfit you’re comfortable in,” she said.

There is also a common misconception about the silence required in art galleries, when in fact most encourage discussion and the exchange of ideas.

“It’s not a place like church where you have to be quiet all the time,” Shaw said.

However, there is proper gallery etiquette of which to be aware.

“People like to look at art without distraction,” Shaw noted. As such, cell phones, food and drinks are typically discouraged.

In addition, most galleries do not allow photography. Carole Kehoe, partnerships manager for Museum London, said flash photography wears down art material over time.

However, even the modern tendency to use camera phones and digital photographs without flash still presents a problem.

“The reason photography isn’t allowed in [galleries] is mostly because of copyright issues,” Kehoe explained.

Above all, the major rule at art galleries is to simply not touch the artwork.

“Art and artifacts are tactile ... people want to get right up close to it. That’s probably our biggest concern,” Kehoe said.

According to Kehoe, the oil from people’s hands transfers onto the artwork and can be quite damaging.

With this proper etiquette in mind, art galleries can be an enjoyable experience that isn’t just for art connoisseurs. There is only one requirement, Lennon said.

“The thing is to go with an open mind.”

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