Going to a gallery can be an escape from the everyday – an opportunity to fall into a moment of reverie in front of an artwork that you know cannot be replicated in print or online. Then there are the spaces themselves: old stately homes, converted power stations and even in carparks. There is nothing quite like a visit to a gallery and now, with COVID restrictions lifting, we can once again go to them. But where to begin and how to make the most of that first trip back?
I have spent the last 20 years working in museums and galleries. In that time, I’ve observed how different people come to these spaces looking for different things.
Whether you’re ready to embrace the world with the full force of a pent-up socialite in need of a culture fix, want to take the children for a day out, or whether you seek solace from solitude, these four tips will help you make the best decisions about when, where and how you bounce back into art and culture.
1. Alone together
Art and cultural spaces are great for a solo visit. At the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA), where I am director, almost 20% of our visitors come alone. Elders, vulnerable adults, refugees and asylum seekers all report feeling safe in the galleries and are often confident to come on their own.
Floating around an exhibition, just taking in the vibe and then reading a novel in the cafe is a perfectly lovely way to spend an afternoon. No one will blink an eyelid that you’re a lone wanderer. Buy the exhibition catalogue and do a deep dive, or skim the surface and zone in and out of art, ideas and people watching.
If you’re seeking quiet time, try arriving early in the morning or a little later in the afternoon to miss the hustle and bustle of midday. We’ve all spent a fair amount of time with ourselves over the past year but this doesn’t mean we have to do everything in one big social dash.
Museum and gallery visits are being prescribed by some GPs as part of an approach to build mental wellbeing and resilience. Art galleries and cultural spaces are great ways to see things anew, to invest in your imagination and build up to other social encounters.
2. A good place for a ‘thunk’
If you’re bringing a clan of any kind, it’s worth remembering that boredom thresholds vary. Keeping different age groups happy can make for a much more enjoyable experience and building activities into your visit can help.
At MIMA, the team have been using artworks to pose “thunks”. A “thunk” is a question that doesn’t have a right or wrong answer. “Where does the sky start?”, “Is soup a food or a drink?”, “What colour is a Tuesday?”.
Also, don’t be afraid to get in contact with the gallery or museum in advance as they may have special resources that you can access.
3. Augment your visit
One of my favourite experiences in a gallery was following a lovely elderly chap give a guided tour to his family. They were captivated. Retired, he would make an advance trip to a museum, read up online and then delight his family with a fascinating tour.
The digital world is filled with all sorts of wonders that can enhance your experience in a similar way. From unique documentary footage, contextual narrative and interviews with artists and curators, this material can bring your visit to life.
Apps such as Smartify, for example, provide behind-the-scenes information about artworks in public collections throughout the UK. This can be a fun way to augment your IRL experience on the day or to bone up in advance.
4. Just one new thing
It can be difficult for museums and galleries to provide sanctuary, the quiet needed for contemplation while also being a fun and engaging family activity at the same time.
Whether you’re looking for the former or latter, with the restrictions we’ve all experienced it can be tempting to overload a visit with expectation and risk feelings of disappointment if, in the event, the reality is somewhat different.
A good approach is to aim to leave the gallery or museum with just one new thing. This could be seeing an entirely new artwork in the permanent collection, having learned one new fact about an artist or a period in time, or simply that brightly coloured pencil you bought in the gift shop.
This will be the first of many visits so enjoy it for what it is and leave feedback – great places really want to know what you enjoyed and what you’d like to see more (or less) of. And if you loved something, tell the world!