An art gallery can be an intimidating environment if you’re not sure how to behave. Is it acceptable to touch the art work? Is it okay to eat in a gallery? What should you wear?
Upbeat producer Zoë George paints an etiquette picture with Erika McClintock from City Gallery in Wellington.
- Episode 1: The Art of Etiquette - ballet
- Episode 2: The Art of Etiquette - opera
- Episode 3: The Art of Etiquette - musical theatre
- Episode 4: The Art of Etiquette - wine tasting
Read the interview
Zoë George: Can I touch?!
Erika McClintock: No, generally not. But there are always exceptions to the rule. It depends on the exhibition. For most exhibitions the idea is no touching. The primary reason is we are trying to protect the work and we want it to last for as long as possible and be available for as many people as possible.
But there are works there that are meant to be engaged with and to be touched. Sometimes the works are so gorgeous you want to see how they feel. The best way to find that out is to ask a (visitor services) host.
Zoë George: Did you see the story about a small child wrecking a Lego sculpture last week? Does that happen often?
Erika McClintock: I would say to that level, no. But every day there are incidents where people do touch. Most people are quite careful around the artworks.
Every organisation I’ve worked in has stories to tell about art that’s been damaged or had inappropriate interactions.
Zoë George: There was also a story about a guy in the UK who tripped on his untied shoelaces and knocked over some famous Chinese vases. Does that happen a lot?
Erika McClintock: Yep! I’ve worked in two places where people have tripped and fallen into artwork. It’s generally people who aren’t aware of surroundings. One person tripped on high heels at an opening event and braced herself on an artwork and knocked it off the wall. It’s not something we could have predicted and she was mortified. The other was someone was having a conversation with another visitor and walked into a plinth with a sculpture on it. Both happen in the States.
I think one of the more recent incidents I saw publicised in a gallery overseas two boys had crawled under the stanchion and were pulling on a glass sculpture that was mounted to the wall while their guardians were filming. Then they shook it lose and the sculpture fell and they broke it. And that’s when they guardians pulled the boys away.
For us that’s a challenging situation. In a lot of ways the museum did what they could with those visual barriers. What the artist did was renamed the artwork 'Broken Angel' and mounted CCTV footage of what happened and [provided a] narrative so people could understand that it does have an impact on the gallery and artist.
Zoë George: What about in places you’ve worked?
Erika McClintock: We had an exhibition where there were little birds as part of installation. For some reason, more than one visitor wanted to kiss the birds. It was an interesting way of interacting with the work and it caught the host off guard. You get that moment of 'Please don’t kiss the artwork'.
There’s a classic story from a place I worked at in the States about a painting of a beautiful blue dress and a little girl went up and licked the blue paint.
Zoë George: If you lick it, do you own it? That’s the general rule, isn’t it?
Erika McClintock: In this case she didn’t get to take it home! The museum used [the behavior] as an example of what is and isn’t appropriate interaction.
Zoë George: How young is too young to take children to an art gallery?
Erika McClintock: No age is too young. I grew up in galleries. That’s one of the reasons why I’m engaged with the arts now. I was brought up with the love of the artwork. My parents didn’t limit my exposure to the work.
Institutions are becoming more family-friendly, producing material available for kids, hands-on activities. That stuff wasn’t around when I was a child. We want it to be welcoming and fun.
Zoë George: Can I eat in the gallery?
Erika McClintock: No. Food and drink we discourage. It’s about making sure artworks are preserved. Anything that can prevent damage is good.
Zoë George: How close should I get to the art work?
Erika McClintock: I understand the desire to get really close. You want to see the fine detail. It makes the host more comfortable if you can see light between you and the artwork. You don’t want breath on the work.
Also it’s easy for clothing, scarves and hair to get closer than you think. Particularly with kinetic work, it can be dangerous.
Zoë George: Standing too close block the view of other patrons too?
Erika McClintock: You want to be aware of people in the space and respectful. There’s no harm getting a closer look and then stepping back. That’s part of the experience. You want to see the fine detail and the big picture.
Zoë George: How long should we stand in front of a piece?
Erika McClintock: There isn’t a time limit or minimum time. There’s one work (in the gallery) that people spend 30 minutes with easily. There is no time limit except for when we close.
Zoë George: What about having a sensory overload? For example Bullet Time is on at the gallery and that has visuals, noise and movement.
Erika McClintock: I recommend for most people at least an hour in the gallery is a fair estimate is how much time people would spend. If people are staying to watch works from beginning to end they could be there for hours.
Zoë George: What should we wear?
Erika McClintock: Wear whatever… jandals are totally fine. Something to be aware of – one of the reasons we have a coat and bag check – is with oversized clothes, puffy jackets, it’s easy to bump into the art when wearing things like that. That’s why most institutions have a front of house team that can check bags and coats. I encourage people to do that.
Zoë George: Can I take pictures of the art?
Erika McClintock: Generally yes. No flash. No filming. We ask that it’s for personal use. It’s primarily about copyright issues and making sure rights of artists are protected. We realise everyone has a camera on them now. We want people to remember their visits.
Zoë George: If my phone goes off can I talk on it or should I leave the gallery?
Erika McClintock: Some visitors get annoyed when people are talking loudly on their phone. It’s like being in a restaurant. If you’re having a prolonged conversation, step out into another space.
Zoë George: Talking in the gallery – how loud should we be? Should we whisper?
Erika McClintock: No. normal conversation is good. The hosts are happy to chat. It’s not like they are talking in hushed tones. They want people to feel they are part of the conversation.
Zoë George: Donations – do we have to give?
Erika McClintock: No, but please donate to support our programmes. We want you to experience the art. A lot of institutions are cashstrapped. If you appreciate the work it would be good to donate. It is a great way to show your support.
Zoë George: How do we look at art?
Erika McClintock: We all bring something individual into a gallery. Look to get something out of it. Giving the artwork a chance is important. Understanding or learning about artists’ intentions is helpful. The visitor services host knows a lot of stories behind the works.
If you don’t get it, ask. That can open a whole idea you might not get just from seeing the work. Stories behind the art – particularly with conceptual art – is where the energy is, that’s what brings people in, those stories.
Zoë George: Art is in the eye of the beholder. If we don’t like something how do we go about expressing our opinion without being rude?
Erika McClintock: There are works you’re not going to respond to. That’s the nature of the beast. If you don’t understand it’s helpful to ask questions. If you understand it or if it hits you wrong move on, come back other time.
Zoë George: You change artwork a lot though, don’t you?
Erika McClintock: Everything we bring in we get on loan. It’s highly unlikely you’d see that same thing in our gallery twice. If you go and don’t like the work, I would encourage going back and checking it out again. You don’t know what will be out on the floor when you next go.
Zoë George: What’s your advice for those thinking about going to an art gallery for the first time?
Erika McClintock: Do it! Come in, make yourself at home. Chat with the host. Some of the best stories come from security and hosts. They are very knowledgeable and they have the fun stories about artist, art works and institution. Come in and explore. If you do have questions just ask.