I get it. You want to go to the art museum, but you can never bring yourself to go. You’re put off by the confusion, the boredom, the feeling that everyone but you knows what the art is all about. You want an earthshaking experience before art, but have never had it. So, you want to give up and admit that art isn’t for you.
Please, don’t give up.
I have worked in and with art museums for nearly 25 years, and I know how you feel. I get bored often, and I’ve never had the kind of earthshaking experience you think everyone else is having. And I can tell you that art museum professionals know they have a problem on their hands. That’s why they’re adding cafes, restaurants, bookstores, parks, parties, concerts.
But all these add-ons ignore what the art museum alone can offer: a personal experience with a work of art, one that enriches and enlivens your life.
Here are some tips that will get you through an art museum and keep you going back:
There is no right way to experience art at a museum. Go with a friend or go alone. When your back starts to ache and your hamstrings tighten up, go get a cup of coffee, visit the bookstore, or find a place to sit and watch other people and watch them look at art, and spend some time thinking about the works you’ve already seen.
2. Avoid the audio tours.
These tours tend to offer you “education” at the expense of “experience.” When you are on a tour, you are not free to use your own eyes or discover your own path through an exhibition or a gallery space.
Remember, you’re coming for an experience, not for education. You can access all that information on the museum website after your visit.
3. Do some research on the museum before your visit.
Each museum is its own miracle, with its own unique story of its existence. Art museums are remarkable institutions, the product of men and women with a profound belief in art and the vision for sharing it with their community. Your experience of art can and should be an experience of the art museum itself. Walk around the grounds and look at the architecture. It’s all intended to be part of the experience.
4. Do not expect a life-changing experience.
Often we are let down in front of works of art, even the so-called masterpieces, because we expect way too much. I do believe that a work of art can change your life. But it will do so only over time and in ways that are not sensationalized and romanticized.
For a profound account of a poet’s encounter with a painter, read Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne.
5. Look at the wall labels only after you’ve spent time looking at the art.
A colleague of mine, a curator at a high-profile art museum, says that the problem with wall labels is that people read them. Again, an art museum is not primarily a place where education happens. It’s where experience happens. The wall labels and other didactic information can help deepen that experience, but it cannot replace it. Most people who go to the art museum spend most of their time standing in front of educational material, not the works of art themselves.
6. Embrace the chaos around you.
In Born Standing Up, Steve Martin observed that “comedy is never performed in ideal circumstances.” The same is true for experiencing art. Just as there is no “right” way to visit a museum, there are no ideal conditions. Kids running around, people with headphones on oblivious of physical space bumping into you, a couple having a conversation in front of the work you’re trying to see, the smell of food wafting into a gallery and the clanking of silver wear, people taking selfies in front of work you want to see — all of these things do not have to distract you from experiencing art. This is life. And art grows out of life and nourishes it.
The experience of art is never “pure”; it occurs in and through the chaos of real life, others as well as yours.
7. Embrace the chaos inside you.
Just as there is chaos around you in the museum, there is chaos inside you — relationship stress, career concerns, emotional trauma. Allow your experience with art to address that internal chaos, speak to it, and become a part of your life.
8. Do some follow-up research.
After your visit, read up on artists and works of art that interested you. Look at other examples of his or her work online and when you travel, check local art museums to see whether other examples of the artist’s work is on display.
9. Go back.
You will be surprised by that second visit, third, fourth, and more and what you learn about those works of art you thought you knew. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929, said that works of art are like people — “they thrive on the attention paid to them.” A work of art continues to work long after you leave the museum. Looking at art takes practice, and little by little, over time, you will discover that it has impressed itself into your imagination and into your emotional life in ways that you might not be able to describe, but can feel.
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Whether it was made centuries or months ago, the work of art that you stand before exists, at that moment, for you. We are perpetually distracted creatures, dragged into the past (nostalgia or regret) or lurching toward the future (worry or hope) and so the present often escapes us. If we allow it, a work of art offers us an opportunity to be present with an artifact that a human being committed his or her life to make. And in that present moment, you’ll find faith — faith that the work of another’s hands can matter to you, and faith that something as misunderstood, strange, and seeming irrelevant to our daily lives can in fact deepen life emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.
Image courtesy of Dustin Gaffke.