Arts and Culture

What to do inside art galleries

For many people, art galleries can be very intimidating places. To help reduce such anxieties, and give you the confidence to cross the threshold into the fascinating world of the visual arts, allow me first to describe and explain the unique characteristics of gallery interiors. Trust me, you can tell a lot about the kind of gallery that you are visiting – and to a certain extent, the quality of the pieces on offer – based purely upon what you see.
The Exhibition Space
Pardon me for stating the obvious (you’d be surprised by the kinds of well-meaning questions this column gets from the uninitiated). The exhibition space, or the "front-of-house" as others would prefer to call it, is the area that gallery visitors access first. This is where you will find the works featured in a solo (more "P.C." than "one-man") or group exhibition.

Although this would depend on the artist’s or the exhibition curator’s intention (in so far as how they would like the pieces to be understood), allocating lots of space to provide the audience with an untrammeled view is still the best way to exhibit works of art in any media.

Unless the theme of the show calls for it, seeing artworks displayed cheek by jowl, one on top of another, or – jeepers – scattered on the floor in order to maximize space should persuade you to feign a smile at the overzealous gallery attendant rampaging towards you, step back ever so nimbly (lest you squash a painting), and run away. I will put my reputation on the line here when I say that there is no surer indication of a bad gallery than this. Although I agree that profit is at the heart of any commercial venture, the fact of the matter is that a) these galleries are run by grubby philistines who put money ahead of the integrity and safety of the artworks. Not surprisingly, one can conclude that b) there is simply no one in this space who is intelligent enough to select the best pieces. Beware galleries that look like they’re forever on a bangketa sale, because chances are you’re going to be dealing with glorified tiangge salesmen selling knock-offs, damaged goods, or stuff that nobody else would ever dream about finding in their worst enemy’s living room.

The intensity of light cast on the works is also the artist’s or curator’s call; but normally good galleries tend to shy away from illumination that is too harsh or garish, preferring to be subdued, respectful – unobtrusive even. Forget about galleries that are awash in fluorescent light (whose bleaching action would put any detergent to shame), particularly when they are supposed to be dealing in fine works on paper! The best galleries look as if they are not using any lighting equipment at all, making you think that you are simply doing your indoor viewing in a temperature and humidity controlled environment en plein air (in natural conditions, or outdoors). Getting this effect, though, costs a lot so you can be sure that this impacts on the gallery owner’s initial investment and administrative overhead, which naturally redounds on the price that you will have to pay for a work.

Galleries can be very naughty when it comes to coaxing a sale. Perhaps the most blatant marketing tool they use are these ubiquitous dots that you find stuck onto the captions or labels hanging beside or in the vicinity of artworks. Red dots normally indicate that a piece has been sold; while dots in other colors typically signify that somebody has reserved the piece. Sometimes, you see a work with a long line of dots, which supposedly means a waiting list of would-be buyers are waiting to get their hands on the work. DO NOT BE FOOLED! Some of these sneaky shysters will stick those things up just to make you think that an artist is in demand and is selling fast just so you’d consider buying one, two or three lest you be left out. Worse, they could make you look twice at a work, break the 10th commandment (covet what somebody else supposedly owns or wants), and tempt you to make an offer. True or not, the important thing to remember here is not to let these spots color the way you view and collect works of art.
The Back Room
Not all the pieces in a show can be accommodated in the exhibition space. Sometimes, the artist has just simply made too many works, and in consultation with the exhibition curator or gallery owner, chooses to show only those that he believes best represent him and are most likely to sell. The leftovers are usually tucked away in what is called the back room; but this is not to say that they are off-limits to the inquisitive and acquisitive.

Let’s set the record straight here: just because a piece has been kept in storage doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s of a lesser quality than those found in the exhibition space. The more discerning collector knows what he or she likes, gains great pleasure from the hunt and derives even greater satisfaction from the experience of finding what may be hidden treasure. Who knows, perhaps the artist was in a playful mood, toying with the audience – keeping the best for those who patiently seek things out.

Like I said earlier, the reasons for keeping pieces in the back room may just be as mundane as preventing the exhibition space from getting too crowded, or that there were simply too many good pieces to choose from.

So what if it was edited out? Experience tells us that history is the ultimate arbiter of value and taste – not the artist, curator, gallery owner or critic – and that, therefore, you should never be bullied into thinking that your choices should always be measured against theirs.

If you’ve had the proper exposure, done the research, checked the condition, and are convinced by the power of the work, chances are high that you’re making the correct decision.
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