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Tag Archives: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

2Do @ An Art Museum

What do can you do in an art museum/gallery/institution besides look at art?

Some art museums are destination architecture – so you can look at the architecture and take a photo. The Guggenheim Museum in NYC started the trend of museums as destination architecture. The Guggenheim is an interesting experiment in art gallery design by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is a real mutant but not one with successful progeny, in that no other galleries have followed this new and curvy design. There is a fountain on the ground floor, a blank white pool with a single jet. There are also planter boxes with green indoor plants on several of the floors. After a few levels it was a relief to walk on a flat floor again but by the 5th level my calves and ankles felt oddly stretched. The Guggenheim in Bilbao is landmark architecture by Frank Gerrey and the photogenic equal of the New York building. However its curvy design does not extend floor to ceiling and the galleries are basically the same as other art museums.

New Museum NYC

New Museum NYC

Buy an entry ticket. The tickets, this is often a necessity for the institution to have some income. Generally you get a ticket and often a little metal tags or sticker that you to put on your clothes.

Put your coat and bag in the cloakroom. The cloakroom is necessary for your comfort and gallery security.

Toilets Boston MFA

Toilets Boston MFA

Go to the toilet. A necessity but galleries have turned this into a design display. In the best art galleries in the world there are baby change facilities in the men’s toilets. I don’t know how many men take their babies to art galleries but the facilities are there for them in many of major museums.

Sit down. The seats are another necessity as people do need to rest their feet and can be in high demand. Seating also allows the viewer to look at the art for longer. This presents a problem for contemporary art installations where a seat in the gallery may be interpreted as part of the art.

Eat at the cafes. This might look like a side earner, but it is another necessity in large art museums that take at least a day to see. The Boston MFA and Louvre have several scattered around the gallery. The Vatican Museum has one of the worst museum café, as it is located directly above their new toilet block. Jeff Lee of Recent Items has a post about the Tate Modern’s café.

Read in a reading rooms or library. The reading rooms in contemporary art galleries reading rooms are likely to be digital, but hopefully in no way resembling MOMA’s “O” (see my post O No). The pod overlooking harbour at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art is cool, relaxing and informative.

Listen to music, musical performances are the most likely entertainment in an art gallery. Listening rooms, well I’ve been in one in a Neue National Galerie Museum in Berlin. The museum had a collection of music and headphones in a seating area, again very relaxing.

Play, mostly only for children, although adults can even play a boardgame in the reading room of the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum. There is a need for a dedicated children’s activities area for the younger visitors in major galleries.

Go to the Cinema. Tate Modern and a few other large galleries have cinemas with programmes co-ordinated with exhibitions.

Sketch. Sketching in US museums is encouraged. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum supplies pencils, paper and boards for sketching. The Frick Collection has regular sketching Sundays. This is in contrast to the NGV’s attitude to sketching (See no sketching).

And, in the words of Banksy, … exit through the gift shop.

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European Art History’s Audience

Before I left for New York Hasan Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem ask me: “Just as a curiosity – if you ever do visit the Frick Gallery in NY, make a mental note of how many non whites you see there. I have this sinking feeling that western art history/art appreciation is a “white folks club” to a certain degree and I am hoping to be proved wrong.”

There are some problems that I faced in considering the race audience for European Art History in the USA.

Firstly I did this by casual observation rather than a proper survey with a comparison the visitor numbers to the general population. Observation is not a good way to determine how people identify themselves racially. I generally don’t like to do it; it feels too close to racism and I wouldn’t have done it if Hasan hadn’t suggested that I do it.

Secondly art history visitors are more to do with gender, education and class rather than race. So a proper survey would not only consider the percentage of racial groups in education levels and income.

Thirdly, how different are the visitors for European art history compared to the visitors for non-European art history and contemporary art. I did notice that there was a slight difference but the audience for contemporary art but not for Asian, Islamic, Inuit, Haitian or Amerindian art.

Given these problems the answer is still obvious. The black face in an art gallery is most often the gallery attendant. The overwhelming numbers of visitors at the Frick Collection in New York or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston are European with a few Asians and a couple of African Americans. This is the same case for exhibitions of non-European art history and this makes me thinking that this is more of an issue of education, specifically a liberal arts education, as well as income levels. To understand a painting in the Frick Collection you need to know both who Thomas Moore and Hans Holbein were and how they featured in English history. And it is education that is reason why a black face in any art gallery is with generally a school group.

Art history in America is largely a “white folks club”. Not that it intends to be, this is not a matter of content. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has Islamic and Chinese art in the collection. (Another place where you are likely to see a person of African origin a European art gallery is in the art, rather than amongst the viewers. This is more common than you might expect.) I am somewhat relieved that on the whole Europeans have learnt to appreciate the many cultures that they have conquered, colonised and pillaged.

The audience for modern or contemporary art is a little bit more racially broader there are more Asians, a few more Africans and a very few Arabs. With contemporary art you don’t require a specific knowledge of history or a liberal arts education. But the racial group that was most noticeably absent from any of the galleries that I visited in the USA were Indians.

Thanks to Hasan Niyazi for suggesting that I consider this issue.


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