For some, going to an art museum or gallery is like stepping into a foreign country. You don’t speak the language, dread the hunt for the bathroom, and will inevitably be overwhelmed. Art can seem like a mystery.
It doesn’t help that one time or another we are left with an art experience feeling indifferent, disconnected, or even disappointed. Maybe the work wasn’t your favorite, the exhibition statement didn’t make any sense, or you were just hungry and found it difficult to ponder Abstract Expressionism on an empty stomach. Who could?
Whether we pace, race, or drag our feet, we all approach viewing art differently.
The particulars aren’t so important here nor is the venue or even the art. If you truly want to get something meaningful from your time and in some cases the 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.
Be curious. Ask questions
If you do just one thing to impact your art experience, don’t ignore the questions that pop into your head. That is just art working away. Why do I like this or don’t like this? Why did the artist choose to use this material or arrange these forms? This makes me think of.. or feel…?
Depending on the venue, seek out a docent, artist, gallery assistant, or the least intimidating looking docent or security guard… and ask your questions. They are often well versed in the work to share about the artist, the process, or interesting story.
If you don’t particularly feel drawn to the work, focus on other aspects such as the use of color, how it looks close up compared to far away, or how the work is presented such as lighting, framing, its relationship to the other artwork next to it, etc. Find out if there is a lecture or program coming up that would help you learn more in depth and you may find yourself with new appreciation to work you were ready to dismiss. By being curious and seeking out more information, you gain control over your experience and empowered with new knowledge to better appreciate artwork in the future.
Get out from behind the camera
Our cell phones have become a culturally accepted appendage and along with it the temptation to capture our every moment and movement. However, speed walking through an exhibition snapping photos without appreciation 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. https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/startdrawing/draftbook
Put that phone to better use. Art presenters are utilizing phones more and more for additional learning and experience opportunities at exhibitions through the use of AI, QR codes, and special apps. If the exhibition doesn’t offer these, you can always
Read up on the exhibition or artist before you go. At the venue, use your phone to make note of an artist, new medium, or technique you want to look up later. I carry a little notebook along with me dedicated to jotting down artists names, thoughts, critique, quick sketches, and questions the work provoked.
Embrace the brain exercise
It’s a different kind of workout to reap the benefits the mental muscle viewing art has to offer. 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. What is the artwork asking you to consider? 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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3MWzJaRXXU
In the video, one woman says she walks up to artwork and tells it to “Make me work on something!”.
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 the ‘masters’ 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 all about art to appreciate it. The secret few will admit is that most are just guessing like you are. Only the artist can truly understand the complexities of their concept. Our job as the viewer is to consider and seek out a level of understanding; ultimately we will come away with our own unique perspective.
In the end, art does not ask you to define it. Art and those that create it ask you to experience, question, discuss, love, or hate it. There is no right answer. Sometimes you may just see a canvas with squares of paint, another photo portrait, or contorted metal slab but if you give art a chance there is meaning and intention behind the stroke of paint, the shudder of the lens, and the shape of the metal.
What it means is up to you.
A version of this article was first posted on the now defunct Savannah Art Informer on
5/16/2016, revised 2/8/2019.