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Find out how you can use museum guards to your advantage. Learn the rules of thumb for distinguishing good from bad art. Explore how kids are able to offer you glimpses of the world that’s hidden behind an art-­ work. How to Visit an Art Museum shows you how a little courage and creativity can go a long way to making your museum visit truly worthwhile. Because, ultimately, the art museum is what you make it. Johan Idema (1973) is an art consultant and a passionate promoter of innovation in the art world.

“Idema challenges us to shape our own view, rather than to necessarily agree with him. After all, sparking the right questions is much more inspiring than providing clear-cut answers.” Wim Pijbes, General Director Rijksmuseum

HOW TO VISIT AN ART MUSEUM

How to Visit an Art Museum offers fresh perspectives on how to behave once inside a museum. Whether you’re a first-timer or a frequent visitor, it shows you the sense and nonsense of museum etiquette. The typical museum behavior – “Walk slowly, but keep walking” – is seldom the most rewarding. That’s why this book encourages you to look outside the box and tackle the challenges that art presents to us by taking matters into your own hands.

JOHAN IDEMA

“The only way to understand art is to go to a museum and look at it,” French painter Renoir suggests. But once inside, this is easier said than done. What do you do when the label simply reads Untitled, 1973? Where to look when a painting offers you a picturesque yet undisguised view of a giant vagina? And how to react when the museum guard stares at you for far too long?

HOW TO VISIT AN ART MUSEUM TIPS FOR A TRULY REWARDING VISIT

STOP NG, I WANDEARRT ST ! ACTING

JOHAN IDEMA


Copyright Š 2014 Johan Idema Concept and text: Johan Idema (www.johanidema.net) Editing: Steffie Verstappen Proofreading: Sarina Ruiter-Bouwhuis Design: Vandejong, Judith van Werkhoven BIS Publishers Building Het Sieraad Postjesweg 1 1057 DT Amsterdam The Netherlands T +31 (0)20 515 02 30 F +31 (0)20 515 02 39 bis@bispublishers.nl www.bispublishers.nl ISBN 978 90 6369 355 8 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owners. Every reasonable attempt has been made to identify owners of copyright. Any errors or omissions brought to the publisher’s attention will be corrected in subsequent editions.


Johan Idema

HOW TO VISIT AN ART MUSEUM Tips for a truly rewarding visit


ONCE INSIDE THE GALLERY, YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN, AS THE MUSEUM ASSUMES THAT THE ACT OF VIEWING ART IS SELF-EXPLANATORY.


CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

9

1 THE EYES OF THE MUSEUM

10 CHEWING GUM STICKING ON THE INSIDE OF YOUR BRAIN

how to use the guards insight to your advantage

2  WALK SLOWLY, BUT KEEP WALKING

how to combat an achy pair of museum legs

3 PAINTINGS WITHOUT PEOPLE IN IT

on understanding landscapes

4

WHEN ART OCCURS

5

THE BEAUTY AND THE BULLSHIT

on the value of watching people look

how to separate good from bad art

6 WHERE ART ENDS AND THE WORLD BEGINS

on frames and the theatrics of art

7 8

FRIENDS YOU HAVEN’T YET MET

on the beauty of small talk with strangers

the importance of finding your own masterpiece

11 THE PERFECT ANTIDOTES

why your kid is an excellent guide

12 REALITY FUNCTIONS AS MY FIELD OF ACTION

how to deal with artspeak

13

THE SOUL OF A MUSEUM

on the added value of collecting staff picks

14 THE UNDISGUISED VIEW OF THE HUMAN BODY

how to deal with nudity in the museum

15 HE FELT SMOOTH AND FIRM

why you should get your hands on art

SHOCK ME IF YOU CAN

16

UNTITLED #3, 1973

BUT, IS IT ART?

17

NO PHOTOS!

how to process provocative art

managing your expectations of art

getting over minimalist art titles

how taking pictures enhances your museum experience


CONTENTS

18

expanding your perception of what an art museum has to offer

NOT JUST A GRAVEYARD FOR ART 27

getting to know the (wo)man behind the work

PLEASE DISTURB THE ARTIST

19

SELFIES AVANT LA LETTRE

28

A SKULL, APPLES AND A BOTTLE

20

ASK ME ABOUT THE ART

29

BRINGING THE OUTSIDE IN

21 SLOW ME THE WAY

a plea for taking a longer look

30

WHAT BRINGS YOU HERE?

22

ART IS A CONVERSATION

31

ALSO AVAILABLE AS POSTCARD

23 THE CUBA FOLDING FLOWER CHAIR

32

PAIRING PARKER WITH POLLOCK

24 YOUR LABELS MAKE ME FEEL STUPID

WHERE TO GO?

how to appreciate portraiture

on the added value of encountering a gallery guide

reframing what the museum restaurant is about

how sitting down will help you to see more

how to make sense of the still life

on the added value of observing the world from a museum window

on pinpointing your underlying motives

why to take the museum store more seriously

how coupling music and art enhances your art experience

25

ANY QUESTIONS?

READ MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

26

OPEN WELLS OF FEELING

INDEX

how to put up - or not put up with label texts

how to guide your tour guide towards delivering value

on the perks of reading the guest book


INTRODUCTION

STOP WANDERING, ACTING START If it wasn’t for the white cube, this book wouldn’t have been written. That’s why it’s important for you to know a thing or two about it. When the white cube first appeared in the 1970s, it was meant to be a large, clean, neutral – and thus pure – white space. A place free of context. Inside the white cube, it would be just you and the art­­ works, nothing in between, alone together, in silence. But something went wrong: the white cube became an end in itself. The white cube gave museums and artists an excuse to focus on art for art’s sake. As a result, the white cube’s enclosement started to feel like isolation, its clean­li­ ness like sterility, and art museums in general like laboratory-like spaces. More than merely being a space, the white

cube came to represent a way of presenting art. And one that profoundly shapes your museum experience to this day. Now, nearly fifty years later, you might think things have changed. Just look at all the wonderful art museums that have been built or renovated since, museum professionals will say. And they are right: some white cubes now have windows, while others boast spectacular architecture. What remains, however, is the etiquette museums follow to “serve” us their artworks. While art has reinvented itself in many ways throughout the past half-century – growing more diverse, complex and absurd than ever before – museums continue to display art in the same monotonous, minimalistic manner. This prompted famous art collector Charles Saatchi to describe the white cube as “antiseptic” and “worryingly old-fashioned and clichéd.” And it’s even getting worse, as the white cube now seems to be regarded as the only way to present art.


INTRODUCTION Drifting from artwork to artwork Too much purity harms the museum. Art needs to be connected to the real world in order to have meaning. “It’s not that art should be seen only in rutty bombedout environments,” art critic Jerry Saltz justly remarks, “but there are other ways, both in space and behavior.” Paradoxically, the serenity and strictness of most art museums hardly tolerate for them to explain or contextualize art. Clean walls and silence don’t allow for a proper story, conversation, performance, party, or any other approach that helps you to understand and appreciate art. Nevertheless, this may just be the kind of guidance that many of us need in order to feel more comfortable at the museum. Most art professionals and aficionados have full faith in the white cube. They believe it encourages the best way to behave around art. There is, however, a much larger group of museumgoers that feels differently. They enter the museum with the hope or even expectation that they will have a worthwhile experience. Once inside, we see them drifting from artwork to artwork, spending an average of ten or perhaps twenty seconds with each object. Their faces reveal interest, but also weariness. Observe them a little longer and you will notice that many of them seem lost, overwhelmed, bewildered, or even bored. “Our encounters with art do not always go as well as they might,” philosopher Alain de Botton notes: “The way the establishment presents art to us doesn’t invite us to bring ourselves into contact with works.”

You can take charge The museum functions as the prime location at which our ideas about art take shape. Why is it then that there are so many fabulous books on digesting art, but not a single one that informs you about how to use the museum in your best interest? Our encounters with art can be rewarding, even illuminating. But don’t be fooled. It’s a misconception that simply being in the museum, in the presence of great art and merely contem­ plating it means your art experience will be meaningful by definition. For that to happen, you’ll have to forge a personal connection with the art, by somehow understanding it or by being touched by it. For many of us that spark doesn’t ignite itself. While you would expect the museum to help you on your way, white cube protocol in fact often has the opposite effect: it prevents us from having a meaningful experience.


INTRODUCTION The good news is that you can, to great degree, take charge and shape your museum experience yourself. Museums may have sound reasons to present art the way they do, but it’s up to you how you want to experience it. Art museums may look and feel like a sterile white space, but that doesn’t mean you should act accordingly. In order to make your visit worthwhile, you may actually be better off by following a different approach. That’s what this book is about: it offers new perspectives on the way you can behave around art to turn your museum visit into a meaningful memory. A little courage and creativity Whether first-timer or frequent visitor, this book offers fresh perspectives on the art museum. It shows you the sense and nonsense of museum etiquette. It lets you tackle the challenges the white cube poses by taking things into your own hands a little more. Because the typical museum behavior – “Walk slowly, but keep walking”, writer Gertrude Stein suggests – is seldom the most rewarding.

Find out how museum guards can be to your advantage. Learn the rule of thumb to distinguish good from bad art. Discover how kids offer you glimpses of the world hidden behind an artwork. Aiming for a satisfying stay requires you to sometimes leave the beaten track, taking care of things yourself or having a few sagacious insights at your disposal. This book shows you how with a little courage and creativity can you can find these new, engaging ways to connect with art and thus make your visit truly rewarding. How to Visit an Art Museum is meant to be a pragmatic and imaginative handbook that caters to the curious and decisive museum visitor. Hopefully, it inspires you to make the art museum a more lively and – especially – more rewarding place. My wish is not so much for you to simply read this book but, ra­ther, to start acting according to its insights. Because ultimately, the art museum is what you make it. Johan Idema


INTRODUCTION

READ HOW TO   THIS BOOK Making your museum visit worthwhile is not about doing one thing right. It’s rather a matter of doing many things differently. Therefore, How to Visit an Art Museum is not written as a single, linear text for you to read from beginning to end. Instead, the book contains 32 suggestions – or visitation strategies, if you will – that will help to make your visit more meaningful. Each suggestion aims to inspire or challenge you to evaluate your museum behavior to date and explore your options to act differently. Some of these tips address the interior of the museum, while others focus on how to look at art or how to relate to your co-visitors. For the sake of your reading pleasure, the different strategies are numbered, but aren’t categorized. You are welcome to read them in any order you like.


1 HOW TO USE THE GUARD’S INSIGHTS TO YOUR ADVANTAGE

EYES THE OF MUSEUM THE The irony of the museum guard is that he is the most visible and yet most over­ looked staff member of the museum. Perhaps that’s because we tend to consider guards, often silent and stonefaced, to be more machine-like than human. That’s a grave misunderstanding. “Museum guards find the lost, shepherd the confused and save toddlers from collisions with immovable sculptures,” as journalist David Wallis puts it. In order to put up with picture takers, soda smugglers and amateur art critics, guards require both the alertness of a police officer and the empathy of a kindergarten teacher. Consider museum guards the ground troops of the art world, who deserve your utmost respect. Some of them actually have amazing knowledge of art – former guards include painters such as Jackson Pollock and Sol LeWitt. Others have

impressive life stories to share, as they might well be refugee immigrants or former bodyguards. What makes guards particularly interesting is that they are the eyes of the museum. Day by day, they witness how we are fascinated, driven to tears or even bored by art – sights that provide them with many interesting insights. As a resource of knowledge, inspiration or just plain fun, the value of museum guards is grossly understated. Many guards would speak with great passion, if only we asked them. Therein lies your opportunity. Have your questions ready and make your move when the gallery is quiet. Whatever the conversation, you will likely find that guards are able to offer what is often lacking in museums: human interaction and a proper conversation about art.


3 ON UNDERSTANDING LANDSCAPES

PAINTINGS WITHOUT PEOPLE IN IT

Landscapes are paintings without people in it. Although this isn’t entirely true, it does point out an essential challenge of landscape artists: how to convey a message with natural scenery being the only protagonist. →


9 ON THE BEAUTY OF SMALL TALK WITH STRANGERS

FRIENDS YOU HAVEN’T YET MET “The ultimate model for an experience of art,” museum expert Amy Whitaker argues, “is a good dinner table conversation.” And she’s right. What a sensuous experience it would be to enjoy, for instance, a flamboyant Matisse painting with a tasty soufflé, great guests and a ruby red Zinfandel. Food in the gallery is like rock music in church: a definite no-no. But what Whitaker really pleads for – great conversations about art – is possible. Still, museums are not exactly lively salons where we eagerly interact with each other about art. Instead, galleries generally bathe in silence. If we must speak, we do so modestly. It’s even possible to visit a museum, be among hundreds of likeminded art lovers, and yet not speak to a single person. The barriers that prevent us from talking to strangers may be high, but the potential rewards of doing so anyway are higher. Especially during our museum visit. What may start off as small talk may end in a conversation about life. What’s particularly interesting about our casual dialogues about art is that we are then

less likely to feel the need to be right. This allows us to share our thoughts, criticisms, and enthusiasm more easily, without very much judgment, thereby deepening our art experience.

That’s why you should take on every opportunity you have to exchange thoughts with other visitors. Or better yet, create them, even if talking to strangers is not your thing. You might be surprised that, more than elsewhere, the museum turns out to be a place where people are open to conversation. Start off carefully by posing a simple question. Soon, you’ll find that someone else’s knowledge, or humor, may offer you new and surprising ways to understand a work of art. Some people don’t feel like talking in museums. That’s fine. A museum can also serve as a wonderful place to find peace and stillness. But the museum in its entirety as a quiet zone? Come on, leave your shell and connect with fellow art lovers. Try it twice or three times, and you’ll agree with poet William Butler Yeats that: “There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t yet met.”


17 HOW TAKING PICTURES ENHANCES YOUR MUSEUM EXPERIENCE

NO PHOTOS !

You are standing in front of a famous Marlene Dumas painting: a grotesque, deformed image of a human face. You take out your smartphone. →


25 HOW TO GUIDE YOUR TOUR GUIDE TOWARDS DELIVERING VALUE

ANY

QUESTIONS? When it comes to guided tours, there is one particular thing that makes or breaks your experience. →


INDEX

A

Abstract 16 Acquired taste 8 Amiel, Henri-Frédéric 3 Ancient Greeks 14 Appel, Karel 8 Art aficionados 12, 24 Art experience 9, 23, 22, 32 Art lovers 9 Artist talk 27 Artspeak 12 Attention 4, 6, 10, 13, 19, 21 Audience 12

B

Bad art 5 Bailey, William 6 Beauty 2, 3, 5, 12, 14, 15, 20 Bookstore 13 Box office 13 Bullshit 5, 12

C

Canvas 3 Cary, Joyce 10 Chair 23, 31 Chewing gum 10 Children 11 Clichés 12 Color 6, 10, 16, 28, 32 Comfort zone 7, 8 Composition 28 Conversation 1, 9, 17, 18, 20, 22 Counterintuitive 8, 22 Courbet, Gustave 14 Co-visitors 4, 17, 22, 25 Craftsmanship 10, 15 Creativity 25 Crucifix 7 Curators 10, 12, 23, 24, 30

D

Defining art 8 Definition 8, 10 Duchamp, Marcel 11 Dumas, Marlene 17

E

Etiquette 12, 29, 32 Exhibition 6, 10, 12, 14, 24, 27, 30, 31 Expectations 8, 19, 32 Experience seeker 30 Explorer 30 Eyes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 15, 19

F

Face 4, 16, 17, 19 Facilitator 30 Falk, John 30 Feldman, Morton 31 Fletcher, Harrell 29 Food 9, 21, 22, 28 Frame 6

G

Gallery guide 20 Gallery window 29 Genn, Robert 28 Genre 19, 25, 28 Guard 1, 13, 17, 23, 32 Guestbook 26 Guided tour 20, 25, 30 Guidelines 3, 19

H

Hands 15, 25 Hartman, Rachel 22 Herder, Gottfried 15 Hirst, Damien 16 Holbein, Hans 19 Hopper, Edward 16 Huh? Wow! 5 Human body 14 Hungry 22

J K

Judd, Donald 8

Kahlo, Frida 19 Kiefer, Anselm 29 Knowledge 1, 9, 11, 30 Knowledge of art 1 Koons, Jeff 4

L

Labels 7, 12, 13, 21, 24, 30 Landscape 3, 28 Landscape artist 3 LeWitt, Sol 1, 11 Lobster and fruits 22 Louvre, The 10, 29

M

Masterpiece 10 Matisse, Henri 9, 29 McCarthy, Paul 4 Memory 20, 31 Mindset 8 Mona Lisa 10, 21 Monet, Claude 3 Motivating identities 30 Munch, Edvard 31 Museum guard 1 Museum labels 24 Museum legs 2 Museum restaurant 22 Museum staff 13 Museum store 31 Museum window 29 Museumgoers 23, 24 Music 9, 32

N

Nudity 14


INDEX

O

Object 4, 8, 28 Ono, Yoko 27 Overdosing 1

P

Panorama 3 Parker, Charlie 32 Passionate 23, 25 People watching 4, 23 Perspective 11, 19 Philosopher 3, 4, 15 Photograph 17, 28 Picasso, Pablo 4, 11 Pictures 7, 13, 17, 30 Pollock, Jackson 1, 8, 11, 20, 32 Pornographic 7 Portraiture 19 Postcard 17, 31 Professional 30 Proust, Marcel 3

Q

Questions 1, 11, 12, 21, 24, 25 Quiet 1, 9, 30

R

Recharger 30 Reframing 22 Relatives 14 Reputation 10 Research 18, 24, 26, 30 Restaurant 13, 22, 30 Rewarding 5, 8, 14, 18, 22, 30 Richter, Anne 10 Richter, Gerhard 17 Rock music 9 Rodin 15 Rothko, Mark 10, 31 Routine 4, 12, 15 Ruscha, Ed 5

S

Saltz, Jerry 5 Sculpture 1, 14, 15, 17 Seating 2, 22, 23 Sedira, Zineb 8 Selfies 19 Sensation 3, 4, 14 Shock 2, 5, 7 Silence 9, 26, 32 Simon, Nina 24 Sitting 23 Slow 2, 5, 20, 21, 23 Smartphone 16, 21, 27, 28, 32 Soul 6, 13, 19 Soundtrack 32 Staff picks 13 Stein, Gertrude 2, 29 Still life 22, 28 Story 25, 27 Symbolism 3, 28

T

Taking pictures 17 Taste 5, 8, 14, 22 Tate Modern 24, 25 Titles 16 Touch 15 Tour guide 25

U

Uncomfortable 7, 14 Uneasiness 8, 14 Unser, Bobby 18 Untitled 16

V

Van Gogh, Vincent 6 Vermeer, Johannes 20 Video 25, 27 Virgin Mary 7 Visual overload 22

W

Walk 2, 7, 22 Wall 4, 6, 24 Wall label 12, 13, 21 Warhol, Andy 17, 31 Whitaker, Amy 9 White cube 6, 29, 32 Wilde, Oscar 19 Wilson, Scott 5 Wine 8, 22, 27, 28 Wow? Huh! 5

Y Z

Yeats, Willem Butler 9

Zappa, Frank 10

How To Visit an Art Museum  

How to Visit an Art Museum offers fresh perspectives on how to behave once inside the museum.