Two people walk by the entrance to the AGO

Who's Afraid of the Art Gallery?

Art on our minds
Written byChris Hampton

Chris Hampton is a Hamilton-based freelance arts and culture writer.

Have you ever heard someone say that they’re scared of a song? Or that they're too unsophisticated for a certain film? It may sound ridiculous, yet many people feel this way about visual art.

While there are many benefits to looking at art — from improved cognitive function, to enhancements in emotional wellbeing — just four in 10 Canadians visited a public gallery in 2016, according to a nation-wide study. For comparison, seven in 10 Canadians attended a movie theatre in the same period. So what exactly is it about visual art that puts some people off? “In general, we are anxious, apprehensive, maybe even afraid of things that we don't know how to process,” says experimental psychologist Daphne Maurer. The question is one of many related to the development of aesthetic preferences that she and her husband, Charles, a science writer, address in their 2019 book, Pretty Ugly.

Photo © AGO
Photo © AGO

Visual art has been “closed off into museums and become the domain of experts,” Maurer says. Our exposure is, therefore, limited, and that which is unfamiliar is much more difficult for our brains to decipher. “Our perceptual equipment is tuned to call our attention to things that we can process easily,” she explains, “and we process easily things that are like things we've seen before or heard before or tasted before.” If you’ve never been to an art gallery and you’ve had no art education, she continues, it’s going to seem daunting. A curator has selected specific works, and you may feel pressure to appreciate them, even though you can’t make heads or tails of what you’re staring at. That can be an unpleasant experience, Maurer says — one that might make you feel like there’s a problem with you.

Of course, the evolution of art in the last century or so — as art increasingly challenges what it is — only complicates the matter of art literacy. Once upon a time, just about anyone might’ve been able to appraise a sculpture or a painting on its level of craft or accuracy. But those old standards of evaluation, which seemed fairly accessible, don’t necessarily apply to contemporary art, says University of Toronto sociologist Ann Mullen: “When you see a shark floating in a tank of formaldehyde, how do you even begin to approach that?”

It can make us afraid. Not just about getting it quote-unquote wrong, but about not even knowing how to start.”
Ann Mullen - Toronto Sociologist

She quotes the journalist and social commentator Tom Wolfe, who wrote: “Frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can't see a painting.” The growing importance of this conceptual dimension has meant viewers unfamiliar with the background conversation on art theory may feel like they lack an entry point to meaningfully engage with a work of art. “It can make us afraid,” Mullen says, “not just about getting it quote-unquote wrong, but about not even knowing how to start.” Similar to Maurer, she believes exposure and education are important parts of the solution.

McMaster University sociologist Phillipa Chong cites a study by Culture Track, which found that when it comes to our cultural-consumption habits, Canadians were least interested in participating in the “high arts,” such as opera, ballet, and visual art in galleries. She doesn’t chalk the outcome up to intimidation, however, but indifference. Galleries, she says, began as spaces to demarcate and display special objects. “But they may actually be victims of their own success, because if their objects are so special, they don't really seem relevant outside the four walls of the gallery.” This is perhaps a related challenge art exhibitors face: establishing how what they do is pertinent to the daily lives of their audience. Visitor research conducted by the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2008 found that two of the top reasons people do not visit art galleries are because “they don't see themselves in the space” and because “they feel like they need to know more about art.”

Melissa Smith is the assistant curator of access and learning at the AGO, and it’s part of her job to identify and lower physical and perceived barriers to the museum’s collection, including these issues of intimidation and relevance. She recalls a formative experience as a teenager at the National Gallery of Canada that sparked her interest in this kind of work. She was sitting in front of Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire — a famously challenging colour field painting, consisting of just three vertical stripes arranged blue, red, blue. “I remember looking at the work,” she says, “and thinking, What the hell is this?” But the arts educator leading the tour (she still remembers his name, Claude) asked the group to take their time looking closely at the work, particularly at the lines where the colours meet. As she examined the painting, the centre lit up like a fire burning straight down the middle of the panel. “I was just amazed that by looking longer and with purpose, I was able to see the work in such a way that it made sense to me,” she says.

Good educators, such as Claude, certainly help. But to really increase public exposure to visual art — and integrate it within the daily lives of community members — Smith says that it’s critical to offer people multiple ways to participate in the gallery beyond exhibitions. At the AGO, this means tours, talks, film programming, performances, classes, parties, and more. Since 2019, visits to the AGO have been free for visitors 25 and under. The thinking is that by getting people through the door, intimidation is mitigated, and an interest in art can start to be nurtured. The notion even extends to its digital doors, with the gallery’s Virtual School Programs, which offer free live online classes Monday to Friday for children from JK through high school.

Two Women Photo © AGO
Photo © AGO

Smith emphasizes that the beauty of any art gallery as a free-choice learning space is that “you can decide how much you take in and take out.” You certainly don’t have to stop at every work or read every stick of text. She doesn’t: “When I go to a gallery, I just zoom past the labels.” Instead, she advises finding a work that catches your eye and looking at it for at least one minute. Then there are some very basic questions, she says, you can ask yourself to engage the work more deeply. Some of Smith’s usual inquiries include: what’s going on here? How do the colours play together? Does this make you think of anything you’ve experienced in the past? Is there anything you’d change about the work if you were its artist? What would you title it? These rudimentary questions can help visitors form an opinion of the work. And, Smith says, it’s crucial visitors know that, contrary to popular belief, “your opinion, how you respond, is valid … just as important as the art historical debate.”

Perhaps that’s the roadblock visual art faces — a nasty misconception. Many people resist galleries because they feel that they don’t know enough about what they’ll find inside. “You're not meant to know,” Smith says. “You're meant to come here and find out.”

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