How to make the most of an exhibition

OK, advance apologies for being patronising. “Oh great, Tom’s going to tell us all how to go round an exhibition, how very useful! I can’t wait until next week when he gives us his tips on how much milk you should add to coffee”. None, obviously – what are you? Heathens?

I’m very lucky to live in London, and have so many galleries and spaces on my doorstep, plus friends and family in the industry, which can mean sneaking in for free.  So double “patronising points” there, apologies again to those who don’t have dozens of galleries within half an hour or so of where they live.

Spending time looking round an exhibition is a really important part of broadening your influences and generating inspiration. Books, websites, films, magazines are all great, but nothing is quite as good as seeing the work in the flesh. A perfect example would be the recent Georgia O’Keeffe show at the Tate Modern. I’m very familiar with her work, and adore it, but I’ve hardly ever seen the original paintings. Predictably, there’s so much more to them than what you can see in print. Now that’s not surprising, but it can be an almost visceral feeling to stand in front of work you’ve known for decades and realise that you’re looking at the actual canvas the artist painted on.

Single calla lily (Red)
Single calla lily (Red) By Georgia O’Keeffe. When I saw this a few weeks ago I probably spent 5 minutes just staring at it. There’s no way you can get quite the same sensation on a screen or in a book.

Besides the magic of the “Original Art Object”, as John Berger would put it, there’s something important about actually setting aside a time to say “for the next couple of hours, I’m going to look at some Art, and give myself over to it.” I’m assuming that as someone interested in taking photographs you are in some way inspired by the visual world, and I’d encourage you to take every chance you can to see exhibitions.  Personally, some of the most inspirational moments in my career have happened when I’ve seen a certain work in a gallery, and the impetus from that moment can last months, and sometimes years.  I can still recall being taken to see Sebastiao Salgado’s “Workers” by my cousin when it was on at the Royal Festival hall in 1993.  I was just starting to take photography seriously, but my only real exposure to it was from magazines and a few books.  Standing in front of some of the enormous, cinematic, hugely detailed black and white images had quite a profound effect on me.  Probably why I can still remember it 23 years later…..

Here are some things I’ve learnt about how to make the most of going to see an exhibition:

  • Try and go when it’s quiet. Standing in a crowd 6 deep in front of a work can detract from its impact somewhat, as can being forced through a gallery in a tide of people, or being swamped by students on a field trip. Again, I’m spoilt by being self-employed, as I take every chance to go and see exhibitions during the week, and am careful to avoid school holidays.
Sam and the Rothkos
My brother Sam in front of a Rothko at the Tate. He was working there at the time, so we didn’t get any grief from security, plus he knew when was the quietest time to visit!
  • Take in the work at your own pace. Don’t follow the flow, and take as much time as you like – if there’s something in a work that intrigues you, stand and scrutinise for as long as you like, see whatever you want to see in it. Conversely, if, after looking at the image for a few moments you don’t feel anything, there’s no harm in moving on.
  • Which leads me to my next point – listen to your gut. The artist in question may have a particularly renowned piece, but you should gravitate towards your favourite, look for the work you like, and spend as long as you like in front of it. Go back to it if you want to, and likewise, feel free to saunter past stuff that doesn’t appeal. I don’t want to encourage a culture of instant gratification, but my own experience is that work that excites and interests me tends to grab me pretty quickly, and work that doesn’t, often doesn’t improve much with longer scrutiny. There’s an entire essay to be written here regarding the development of taste, personal preference, and the line between inspiration and imitation, but let’s save that for another time, and for now just place more trust in our own instincts. Go and read the first chapter of “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell when he talks about Art Experts who can spot fakes if you think I’m making this up!
My niece Isla, experiencing art by sitting on it in her Yellow Wellies. Probably the cutest image you’re ever likely to see on this blog.
  • Ignore the captions. This can be very hard to do, and it’s a habit I’ve coached myself out of over the past couple of decades, but it’s so worthwhile. There’s a huge temptation to simply go round a show, and “tick off” the images once you’ve read the caption – “this image was done during the artist’s heroin phase, and shows their rejection of society” – leads to you looking at the work to seek confirmation of this, and as soon as you’ve seen it, off you go to the next piece. Stand in front of a piece of work, and let yourself feel whatever you want to feel, don’t be guided by what the caption says. If you want to know more about the work, then by all means read the caption, but I’d suggest looking first, and reading second.
The Jam
The Jam at Somerset House 2015. In this instance the captions are well worth reading!
  • There’s a big difference between going alone or going with friends/in a group. Being part of a group can add to your knowledge – there’s definitely something to be said for taking an organised tour in order to increase your insight into a particular artist. Going alone though allows you to take the work in completely on your terms, which ties in with what I was preaching about earlier. Beware of going to an exhibition with someone who knows very little about the artist, when you’re a comparative expert yourself. You can guess what will happen – you’ll spend the whole time showing off your vast knowledge, and none of the magic of discovery I’ve been talking about will happen to you – you’ll be too busy basking in the glow of your adoring companion. This has never happened to me of course. Nope, not once. Mind you, I did once go round a Kandinsky exhibition at the Tate with a good friend and we decided fairly early on that everything was Freudian, so we spent our entire time simply looking for images of genitals. Very highbrow indeed.
  • Lastly, be VERY careful around the gift shop – those places can bankrupt you in minutes!

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