Looking at art through the lens of the artist is essential, knowing the time and environment they created in is vital for understanding their work. But experiencing others’ work to grow our own understanding of ourselves is even more valuable. I think I first realized this when I had a drawing teacher send us off to a museum with instructions on how to truly experience it. Ever since that day I’ve reaped the benefits of that assignment every time I encounter art. So of course, I want to share with you these 7 tips for experiencing art at a museum, exhibition, or gallery show. All three of these venues are slightly different experiences and have different things to recommend them, but all can be approached in this same way. In fact, these tips work no matter where you may encounter art.
Museum, Exhibition or Gallery?
Back when I thought being an art history major was a better career choice than being an artist, I spent hours compiling lists of art museums and galleries I’d like to visit someday. The cities of Florence, Rome, Paris, New York, and London were high on my list since they made it onto my list the most frequently.
During my classes, I’d listen to my professors talking about sitting in front of Monet’s Water Lilies paintings at MoMa and feeling overcome. Of being speechless while gazing at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or standing next to the horses at the top of St. Mark’s Basilica and enjoying the view of Venice.
My 20 yr-old-self yearned for those experiences. What I didn’t realize was that when I traveled to view these masterpieces, I would also have the joy of discovering the small local artists, who haven’t found their way into an art history textbook quite yet.
Seeing Art is Much Different then Seeing Pictures of Art.
Just a few days ago, I returned from the south of France. My mom and I took the trip together. We both love going to museums, festivals, and art fairs, so this trip was our time to indulge in those experiences. It didn’t disappoint. At the Musee des
It’s just different in real life. When you view a work of art personally, you have an emotional and visceral reaction to it. This connects you to it in a way that a photo in a book would not.
Discovering Art on the Side Streets.
Two of my favorite unexpected art experiences of the trip were when I stumbled upon local, contemporary art. Contemporary art is defined as artists that are alive and working or are of the present. One was a temporary “pop-up” exhibition of painters in Lyon.
Another was a small contemporary art boutique for ceramic artists in Vienne called Terre d’art. Galleries and boutiques can often be a little intimidating. But if you like attending art shows, and art studio tours, then a local artist collection is a total find. It’s a chance to see work by lesser-known artists of today that are influenced by much of the same things as we are.
Terre d’art in Vienne was a delight to find. It had a large variety of different artists that were all uniquely interpreting their medium. Each artist’s work is grouped independently. So you really get a sense of what that artist’s style is and what they are interested in. The shop itself was engaging and invited you to walk around and make discoveries.
Connecting the Art You See to the Art You Make.
Since I’m currently taking a sculpture class, I loved the clever little tongue in cheek sculptures by Corinne Volatier. As well as the elegant figure studies by Marie Agnes Branche and Stephanie Besson. Discovering what you personally like best means that you find out you have opinions on what you see. Which connects you emotionally to the work you are viewing.
I found I really like how one of the artists, Anne-Cecile Allegre, created expressionistic drawings on the surface of her work. Then she used those same flowing lines to scratch into the surface of her clay. Merging her surface drawings with the clay body. I loved seeing her work on the two little tables in the photo.
The other unexpected find was a temporary show of contemporary artists in Lyon. We were on our way to the Musee when we saw a large white tent in the plaza filled with paintings by local artists. After doing a walkthrough, both my mom and I had our favorites. Collections such as these give us the opportunity to see work that we may not actually like all that much, but that challenges us in some way. And of discovering new artists we may love!
The artist that intrigued me the most in this exhibit was Elisabeth Constantin. She creates mixed media art on layers of plexiglass to create a shadowbox effect. Before I left for France, I’d been mulling over what I could make with plexiglass. Seeing this artist’s work gave me a clue as to what I’d like to do.
So take the side streets, and don’t be afraid to step into a shop or tent you find along the way. Just turning a corner can reveal new works and new artists. The connections and inspiration we experience makes seeing diverse art extremely valuable to us. Because it doesn’t just show us other’s work, but it shows us the possibilities in our own.
Not Just Where but How as Well.
So, where you encounter art makes a big difference in your experience. But how you do it makes all the difference. Below I have 7 tips for experiencing art at a museum, art exhibition, or gallery show. Really these tips work wherever you may encounter art (coffee shop bathroom, or even subway wall).
I guarantee that they will help you understand and connect not just with the work you see on an intellectual level but on a personal one as well. You’ll make discoveries that will excite, challenge, and guide you in your own work. It’s pretty cool.
7 Tips for Experiencing Art at a Museum, Exhibit, or Gallery Show.
Tip # 1 – Walk into it with an open mind.
It’s great to have an idea of what you’d like to see. But it’s also essential to leave room for discovery.
Tip #2 – Don’t try to see it all. We can only really experience so much without getting overwhelmed.
Hello, yes, Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica I’m talking to you. It’s sad, but no matter how much you love Michelangelo at some point in the experience, you’re just checking them off. I really saw Laocoon and the Pieta, but after that, it was a blur. So don’t feel bad if this happens to you. It just means that you were experiencing the work emotionally, and because of this, became emotionally exhausted. This is a good thing!
Tip #3 – Walk around the space and do a quick survey of what’s there.
No matter how you might want to sit and sink into a specific work, it’s a good idea to see what else is there first. It’s like scanning the table of contents to get an overview of what the book is about.
Tip #4 – As you do the walkthrough, pay attention to what you a) like the most b) like the least c) challenges or intrigues you.
We all know pretty instinctively what we like when we see it but do we know why? And what about the cringe-worthy art? Do you know why it makes you cringe? When my art teacher gave us the assignment I mentioned above, she also said knowing what we don’t like reveals more about our personal tastes then knowing what we do like.
That was life-altering for my perception of art. Instead of just accepting what others had designated as “good art.” It gave me permission to make my own judgments about what I like. It also freed me to experience an emotional reaction to what I was seeing. But more than anything else, it helped me discover my own personal tastes in art. Which helped me shape my own work.
Tip #5- Go back to those pieces, and then ask yourself what is it about these pieces that I like or don’t like.
Sit in front of them if you can and just sink into the work.
Notice where your eye lands first and how it travels around the work. Often the artist is leading you to see the focal point first and then takes you on a tour of the other elements in the composition.
Think about the medium the artist is using (paint, ceramic, etc.) and how they may be working with it. What colors are they using? Are they trying to evoke an emotion in the viewer?
Is the artist present
Does the artist seem to have a personal connection to the scene their depicting? Is it a private moment between a mother or child, or a significant event with a crowd of people? What story does the piece tell?
Then jot down your impressions and thoughts in your sketchbook or in the notes on your phone. Don’t forget to write down the title of the work and the artist. Take a picture of it if you can. Maybe take a few moments to sketch the work.
Bonus Tip – Many museums offer portable stools at their front desk.
When you sketch a work of art, you are more aware of the choices the artist made as they created the piece. Many art schools have students copy masterpieces because it is such a great way to learn about its creation process. I actually wrote a post on this, How Copying can Jumpstart Your Creativity.
Tip #6 – Next, go back to the beginning and read any information about the artists and their work.
This often gives you the cultural and historical information surrounding the work. That helps us to understand the influences the artist may have been experiencing and reacting to. Do not do this first if you can help it, as it will influence your personal reactions to the work.
Then, make a note of how your perception of the work may have changed now that you know a little more about it. Many paintings like Picasso’s Guernica are a lot more enjoyable when you understand the political and cultural experiences of the time.
Tip #7 – Visit the gift shop, exhibition table, or front desk.
Many museums have postcards in the gift shop of the works of art available in their collections. These are better quality images then your photos often are. And are perfect for taping into your sketchbook next to your descriptions of the work. Exhibitions often have catalogs that you can purchase that will tell you about the artists included. And galleries have people that genuinely love the artwork and are more than happy to talk to you about it. Purchases, no matter how small, help to support their efforts to connect art to an audience.
For More Inspiration…
Want to know more about the art that I mentioned in this article? I have links sprinkled throughout it. I also found this great article by Mental floss, 15 Things You Should Know About Michelangelo’s Pieta. And if you’d like to know more about the exhibition I visited in Lyon you can visit the Academie Lyonnaise Peinture‘s via their website. I also have a post about How to Use a Sketchbook to Hack Inspiration. Finally, I would really really, like to recommend that if you’re ever traveling, that you buy your local souvenir from a small local artist boutique, like Terre
Love this? Share these 7 Tips for Experiencing Art.
Thanks for reading these 7 tips for experiencing art at a museum, exhibit or gallery show. I hope it encourages you to take the side streets and really experience art at a personal level. And if you found these tips helpful I would LOVE to have you share this post either on social media or on Pinterest. It really encourages me when you do, and it helps others who might need the creative inspiration to see these posts. And I would love to have you leave a comment about your last art experience!