How Galleries Affect Art

Contemporary art is aesthetically dependent on gallery spaces; the gallery or museum architecturally and aesthetically frames the work defining it as art. It was the modern world that created the art gallery, the art museum and the contemporary art museum. And modern art grew increasingly dependent on gallery spaces. Despite the emergence of site-specific works, many works of contemporary art depend on the art gallery setting to give them meaning and even existence.

Given that the art gallery/museum has been the prime location for art it is surprising that there has been very little written about the aesthetic impact and other effects of art galleries and museums. Paul Mattick, Jr. of Adelphi University notes this in his entry on museums in A Companion to Aesthetics (Blackwell, 1992); adding that “a quick survey of the British Journal of Aesthetics and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism turns up not a single article devoted to the subject.” (p.297) Mattick did say “a quick survey”; my research was better, because I found two articles in the first volume of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in 1941 (Ananda K. Coomaraswamy “Why Exhibit Works of Art” and John D. Forbes “The Art Museum and the American Scene”). Neither of these articles is particularly insightful and both conclude that there is an educational function to art exhibitions. Mattick’s entry in A Companion to Aesthetics is possibly the best article written on the subject (I wish that A Companion to Aesthetics had been published when I was writing my thesis it would have made my life a lot easier).

Mattick traces the history of the art museum from the proto-art galleries of European royalty designed to be impressive displays of power and wealth. To the first art museums that removed the religious, political and moral function of art organizing them and, in that process, expanding the categories of art to include, industrial and non-European arts.

Although the architecture of art museums has changed from re-purposed neo-classical palaces to renovated industrial buildings and architectural design icons their function remains basically the same as that of the proto-art gallery. They are a display of the state’s wealth and power with a little bit of education thrown in.

It is for these reasons that I pay particular attention to current art gallery/museums, to the little details describing the number of people working in the gallery, the type of lighting in the gallery, the type of space, etc. in this blog. I have been trying to write about a greater variety of galleries so that no gallery benefits unduly from the free publicity in this blog. The mode of exhibiting art in white walled cubes may appear to be natural and necessary whereas it is arbitrary and only sufficient (see my blog post on The White Room). Gallery practice will change but if nobody pays attention it people will assumed that current practice is natural. I wonder how much longer the white walled gallery will continue to be the norm? Fortunately I am not alone in looking at galleries HobArts has a post about basically, the top 10 architectural features of contemporary art galleries, except HobArts lists 12.


About Mark Holsworth

Writer and artist Mark Holsworth is the author of two books, The Picasso Ransom and Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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