Dead winter. Even when it’s not snowing or gray and rainy, it’s still cold. Perfect art museum weather.
Maybe you think you don’t like art museums. Maybe you feel like I used to: When I got my chance to go to the Louvre in Paris to see the Mona Lisa, I compared it to shopping at IKEA: There was that same point in the adventure when my lower back ached, and all I could think about was how could I get out of the building.
Drifting through the collections glancing at paintings, or standing in line with the crowd pushing past highly acclaimed works didn’t hit me in the gut the way art is supposed to. As it turns out, I was doing it all wrong. Experts today have much better advice on how to experience an art museum.
My experience at the Louvre was a common “worst-case scenario,” says Alan Roberts, an artist, art historian, and educator who will be leading an upcoming three-day study seminar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. At large art museums like the Louvre and the Met, visitors can end up wandering from work to work and from room to room without getting much out of it.
Art museums have worked hard to draw a younger and more diverse audience by offering fresh and creative exhibitions. For example, The Newport Art Museum currently hosts an exhibition that features artists who work with textiles in different ways and tell different, often topical stories about hot-button issues like prison incarceration and privacy in the age of social media.
Museums also sponsor lecture series, art-themed book clubs, interactive events for adults and families, special tours, and various art classes for adults and children. The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston offers film festivals and live music. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has date nights Friday and Saturday evenings, with gallery chats, live music, drinks, and “small bites” offered at the restaurant.
The MFA suggests you start your trip with a visit to the website. Museum websites offer a wealth of background material that helps give artwork meaningful context, and The MFA website has a blog called “Art for this Moment,” which features a unique personal response or connection to a specific work, written by museum staff members and others. Also helpful is a “close-looking” guide for tips on how to view art.
The Met’s website has an amazing wealth of resources. A “Primer” features a selection of “audio journals” by artists who work in different fields: For example, Gavin Finney, a cinematographer who works on BBC historical dramas like “The Miniaturist,” explains how he gathered important cultural information from 17th-century Dutch artwork before he began his shoot.
For the hordes of us who never do advance research, the Newport Art Museum has a feature on its website that allows a visitor to access links to background resources, like articles written about the work, via a QR code, scan-able via cell phone while in the museum.
But Cristin Searles Bilodeau, the director of visitor services and community engagement, suggests spending several minutes looking at an artwork before even reading the label—the caption that gives the title, artist, and year of completion.
It turns out that many museum visitors are much like me. They spend an average of less than half a minute looking at a piece of art, with the median amount of time only 21 seconds, according to a 2017 study conducted at the Chicago Institute for Art. This expanded on similar findings from an earlier study at the Met.
Bilodeau advises beginning a museum trip by finding a work “that speaks to you,” spending at least a couple of minutes in front of it, and starting a conversation with yourself about it. Ask yourself how the piece makes you feel and what keeps drawing your eye. About the mood of the piece, she says. And if you are at the museum with someone else, ask each other.
Picking apart a piece of art that repulses you can be equally illuminating. She says the conversation is important, adding that the artist who creates the work is only 50 percent of the dialogue. The viewer of the artwork must contribute to the other half. “And no matter how much you know or don’t know about art, every response is valid.”
Roberts, who will lead a study seminar at the Met in New York from Feb. 16 through 19, takes that advice even further, taking participants on a deep dive that involves studying a single piece of art for more than an hour.
Sitting on stools before a painting, participants begin a conversation. “We start with what do we see in the painting?” Roberts explains. “A man at the end of the field, a shepherd. Did he accent the top of the body or the bottom? You start noticing all sorts of distortions and the decisions the artists made, and what those decisions mean in terms of meaning.”
Roberts, who has led more than 100 study groups at European museums and is the president of the Leo Marchutz School of Painting and Drawing in Aix-en-Provence, says the seminar begins with the Renaissance and examines paintings up through the 20th century, ending with Cezanne and Giacometti. But over the course of three days, the seminar participants will study only about 15 paintings—all chosen to show the thru line from the Great Masters, to Impressionists, to avant-guard painters.
Robert Wilson-Black, president of a Washington, D.C. nonprofit, who participated in Roberts’ first American study seminar at the National Gallery of Art last year, says the experience transformed how he looked at art. “The philosophy of art creation and interpretation was firm enough to provide me with guardrails as I looked at paintings, yet porous enough to allow my exploration. It helped bring satisfaction in the hunt for connection to great art.”
Jan Brogan, a WhatsUpNewp contributor, has been a journalist for more than thirty years, working as a correspondent for the Boston Globe, a staff writer for the Worcester Telegram and the Providence Journal, where she won the Gerald Loeb award for distinguished business writing. She is the award-winning author of four mysteries, Final Copy, Confidential Source, Yesterday’s Fatal, and Teaser.