“Museums and galleries are for people. Children need to grow up in them …” Riva Yares
I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I consider my birthplace fortuitous because of the close proximity to grandparents, cheesesteaks, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Living in, or near, the oldest cities in the United States gives residents access to world renowned museums (at low or no cost) as well as a tremendous amount of free public art by way of fountains and sculptures strewn throughout the streets and thoroughfares. Add in a couple centuries of eye-popping architectural achievements and an afternoon downtown could easily provide enough material for a standard college level Art History class. The galleries in locations like Boston, NY, Philly, or DC. would provide more than enough material for a senior thesis. In smaller cities art museums and galleries might be harder to visit but it’s still worth any extra effort to see the artwork by actually going to the building where it resides.
And I say that knowing full well that many people are not comfortable in museums or galleries. I’ve heard people complain that they don’t know what they are looking at or what they should be looking for or that they don’t like some of what they see. I’m going to try to simplify all three of the above complaints with one basic statement: Look at what you like. Seriously. It doesn’t matter what it is – Rembrandt or Jacob Lawrence, Monet or Yayoi Kusama, Wyeth or Helen Frankenthaler – find what you like and spend as much or as little time as you want gazing at it and then move on. When you hear a song you like do you listen to it for 30 minutes straight without doing anything else but listening? Do you ponder every single t-shirt in the store for 5-15 minutes before deciding you like the blue one? There is no reason for art to be considered ART (read that in a posh British accent for optimal effect.) It’s everywhere and you can probably figure out what you enjoy. If you don’t know what is happening in a picture and the museum has a docent – ask. No docent? Read the little sign next to the work. In a museum someone has to come up with all the information written on it and would probably feel more personally fulfilled if they thought people appreciated their work too. In a average gallery setting (ie. not in high-end galleries in places like NYC) the person that wrote the placard is more than likely the artist. And, personally, I sweat bullets over the information I include about a piece. I want you to read it because I worked hard on that paragraph when I would have rather been painting.
Other people complain about the hushed atmosphere, the cathedral like stillness, and the uniformed guards standing around watching them. It is a bit of assuming the initial point in my mind. Because you think museums are stuffy, quiet, compressed places you behave in a stuffy, quiet, compressed manner. Museums don’t have to be lifeless mausoleums of colored canvas. Ask, discuss, decide, and declare are all action verbs. Do those things. If you’ve taken the kids, and I hope you have, ask them which piece they like the most and find out why. Share your opinion. Sometimes there are funny bits in the paintings – find them. Do a pictorial scavenger hunt by having your kid find the dog chewing on a bone in a 17th century painting by a Dutch master. If your companions are more mature (and inherently less energetic) discuss color and composition or compare and contrast two pieces, find the funny bits, speculate on if the artist and model were getting busy while the paint dried, and top off your visit with over-priced bakery items from the museum cafe. The artists were painting life (and death and betrayal and dreams and epic battles) for an audience. You are the audience and as such you are a vital part of the show.
[Incidentally, a bit of advice from personal experience for those who are tactility inclined, security guard interactions are greatly reduced if you keep your hands in your pockets … just a FYI … now go look – with your eyes.]