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Addressing the Fear of Art Galleries

In the last couple of months I have been lucky enough to venture out of little old Invercargill and find a breath of fresh air in both Dunedin and Auckland. While wandering these cities I decided to spend some time feeling warm, safe and inquisitive in Dunedin Public Art Gallery (DPAG) and Auckland Art Gallery (AAG). I must admit that these feelings are fairly new. Now that I work in an art gallery I have suddenly become much more comfortable with them and I suspect I am one of a minority. Despite best efforts and the wonders of modern art galleries becoming much more interactive and hands on for visitors, a lot of people still seem scared of them. I do not know if this a result of assumptions about what will be inside or feeling that it’s above them, elite and confusing, but I feel it is something that needs to change.

In Auckland, I was exploring the city alone on a workday. It was quite cold and I didn’t know the city well so I followed trusty google maps to somewhere where I knew it was ok to feel unsure. When I entered the lady behind the desk was incredibly kind to me and explained nicely that I had to leave my things with her in cloak check. After carting a couple of bags around all day, exploring the space with nothing in my hands but my phone for photos and a map for layout actually enhanced my experience. I felt incredibly in the moment as I wandered around the spaces gravitating towards whatever grabbed my attention.

Many pieces in the collection based shows were by artists whose work we have in our own collection. I even saw two Gretchen Albrecht works very similar to ours. Seeing them greatly helped me understand our Albrecht and how it fits in with its art peers. As someone who didn’t actually study much literal Art History at university apart from the odd paper, I am still learning a lot about the art world. I only know the famous names or ones from the collections I have handled, so it felt incredibly good to recognise some names and artists from what I could see before me without reading labels. I felt like I had gone up a level in art literacy!

Towards the end of my visit I had, as expected, wound my way up the floors to the top gallery space. Displayed here were the finalists in The Walters Prize 2018. I had no idea what the awards purpose and focus was but but from what I could hear I was immediately intrigued. Rounding the corner I could see nothing but naked humans and other psychedelic unusual things swirling in kaleidoscope type patterns on multiple screens which you were invited to stand on a platform in the middle of. After submersing myself in these oddities for long enough I followed the noise I could hear into a full room installation full of green and black hanging tinsel, collages, and loud, unavoidable rap music. It was brilliant. The young children I had been following into this space immediately ran into the middle of the hanging tinsel and smiled something wonderful. This space invited them to make noise and by feeling comfortable being noisy kids they really interacted with the installation. Even I couldn’t help but smile. It seems that noise in the gallery space helped us all relax and engage.

When it came to DPAG I happily dragged my friend along with me. Again it was raining and cold outside and we had time to kill in the CBD before plans at 4pm so going inside was no hardship. This was also eased by the wonderful array of gift shop items lining the entrance, including a very special looking inflatable swan. Our art gallery tour comprised of wandering around pointing out works we liked, names we recognised, the ages of works, as well as the creepiest, ugliest, weirdest things we could find. When it came to some very interesting medieval works we were not afraid to point out he creepy man in the background or the girl with no shoulders and consequently out laughing. The attendants in the rooms seemed to quite enjoy our commentary. One lady even took this as a chance to tell us about the films artist and how when the video of him in super massive pants climbing out windows was first exhibited they actually had all the pants he had made and worn during the month he filmed the content. He never washed them, and rarely took them off, so as you can image she also had numerous smells to describe to us! It was a memorable engagement with modern art and I’m quite pleased the pants are gone now! The moral of the story here is though, that if we had been afraid to speak up and chatter away in the art gallery our experience would have been less. Instead by being comfortable and saying our thoughts we brought smiles to the faces of the workers and heard a rather unforgettable story which brought that art to life for us on a whole new level.

Speaking of new levels, IPAG is moving into a new building in 2019 which will be a collaborative space with the Southland Museum and Art Gallery. It is glorious to feel these institutions working together and I am hoping that, with the joining, people will feel less afraid to enter our doors and explore what’s within. Arts and heritage spaces, whatever their forms, are for the people, the community. We want you to feel welcome and comfortable to the level that you are not afraid to speak up about your experience as you never know how that might just improve it for the better.  

Loren Baxter
Assistant Project Registrar