There is an art to looking at Art
I was recently interviewed for Hampshire Life magazine about the Hampshire Open Studios an event I have taken part in regularly in recent years. During the interview we talked about the visitor experience and how the artist can make this less intimidating for people who perhaps would not normally feel at home in an art gallery. I thought it might also be helpful to share some tips on how to get the most out of a visit based on my observations of stewarding over the years, and also my own experiences as a visitor to other people’s studios and galleries.
The Hampshire Open Studios
For those of you not in the know, over the 10 days leading up to and including the August bank holiday, artists and makers open up their studios, homes, or rent venues, to show and sell their work to the public. While this costs the artist a fee to be included, it is a free event for visitors and a wonderful opportunity to buy from the artist directly if they see something that they would like to have in their life more permanently.
Why visit an art exhibition?
From the artists point of view, sales put food in our mouths and keep a roof over our heads (or at least enable us to buy more paint, paper etc to keep our creative practice going). However, there are many reasons why visitors look forward to this event (gleaned from talking to, observing and listening to many over the years), aside from increasing their personal art collection. These are (among others):
- being inspired by others to reignite their own artistic or craft practice.
- learning about workshop opportunities, and art education.
- supporting, meeting, and talking to other artists (networking).
- a good day out with family and friends.
- visiting interesting venues that are not always open to the public.
- having a nose around other peoples houses (freely admitted to by many folks I’ve spoken to!)
Making the most out of every visit
With nearly 300 venues taking part over a wide area, and a limited amount of time, choosing who to visit can be difficult. While artists include a photo or two in their advert in the book/on the website, unless you know their work (follow them on social media or have seen them before), there is always a bit of a gamble turning up. What if you are the only person there, in an artist’s living room, in front of work that doesn’t immediately speak to you? How do you make a quick exit without appearing rude?
From the artist’s point of view we have all experienced the Twirl: that person who steps through the door, tries (with varying degrees of success) not to look disappointed, does a rapid spin around the room (sometimes on the spot) and leaves hastily with mumbled “thanks” or “nice” to cover their embarrassment.
While recognising that art is subjective and for every Twirl there is the person who spends a significant amount of time engaging with and enjoying the work, I always feel sad that the former has made the effort to come in and got nothing out of the experience. While some Art does jump off the wall/plinth at you (this is when you know you are in the right place) and creates a connection straight away, some art is much quieter and needs a little time to speak to you. If you don’t give it that time, you may miss out on a rewarding experience.
Hints and tips on slowing down the visit
Having seen the exhibition experience from both sides, I thought it might be helpful to give some hints and tips on how I’ve learn’t to slow down and make the most of visits, even when the art itself, on first glance, doesn’t appear to be my thing.
- Be methodical (if space allows) and work around the room. Be aware that hanging an exhibition from the artist point of view takes much planning. The work is placed intentionally in relation to that around it. There may also be an obvious progression of a series i.e. what came first? You can liken this to how musicians create an album. Dipping in and out on random shuffle may give you an idea of each piece in isolation, but the album overall has an impact if listened to in the order that the artist intended.
- Commit to standing in front of each piece for a number of seconds. Stand back (if space allows) and then look up close. For 3 d work, walk around it if possible and view from different angles. Often there is an interesting feature hidden around the back!
- Consider the colours, the composition (what has been placed where) and how your eyes are drawn to certain elements of the work. Note the materials used (they are often surprising and only obvious on closer inspection). Remember that the artist is using these things to communicate with you. What is the piece saying to you? As a viewer these can be negative or positive reactions, both are interesting. Not least as our reaction to elements such as colour, can change over time e.g with seasons, and things going on in our lives. You may have gone in to the room thinking that you liked blue landscapes and finished realising that you are starting to enjoy charcoal figures.
- Read the titles. Personally I spend a lot of time naming pieces. They add another clue and often can be quite enlightening if not laugh out loud entertaining as the penny drops.
- If there are sketchbooks or information to leaf through about the artist and their work, have a look. These can help if you are struggling to “get it” and sketchbooks in particular can be a fascinating insight in to process and background (and occasionally shopping lists if mine are anything to go by).
- Often at Open Studios artists will be creating work or demonstrating. Watch them for a bit and ask questions if appropriate.
- If there are chairs available, sometimes sitting down in front of the work gives you more time to let the introvert pieces show their worth. It can give another view (particularly if you are considering buying something to put in a room where you will be sitting in front of it regularly). There may also be an opportunity to partake in refreshments offered by the artist/venue at this stage.
- Talk to the artist if they are there, about their work. Ask them questions: what inspires them, how did they get in to art, what is their favourite piece, how long does a piece of work take them, where can you see more of their work, ask how something you are interested is made etc etc.
I hope that this has given you some ideas on how you might get more out of exhibition visits. It isn’t all about shopping and spending money, but if you have enjoyed yourself and got something rewarding from the experience, a small token of thanks to the artist is always appreciated to help cover their costs for being there. While you may not want a piece of their work hanging on your wall (and we do understand that, I assure you), buying a card (or something small and affordable) can help them keep doing what they are doing, providing entertainment, inspiration and pleasure to others through the creation of their work.
Happy visiting folks…….