A student’s guide to gallery shopping

The art gallery: that impenetrable bastion of high, nearly unapproachable, culture. Its track lighting and white walls are dominated by whispering figures and sidelong glances. Do you return the glance? Do you know him? Unlikely.

How does one behave in such a place? It’s always unnerving. One does not want to draw attention to oneself in a gallery, as the focus should be on the work. There are subtle, unwritten rules of etiquette for those hallowed white cubes, which allow you to both appear and feel as though you belong.

The rules are contingent on a number of factors, the most pressing is: What kind of gallery is it?

The diner gallery (see locally: Black Sheep Diner)

The diner gallery is by far the most casual and forgiving of all the gallery subtypes. For one, you are allowed to talk at a normal tone and laugh uproariously at will (this is not generally recommended, more on that later). In this context, the art is a conversation piece for awkward brunches and relationships that have run dry on the “I love you toos” that keep the young afloat.

The main issue in these galleries is that the artwork is usually by an aspiring local tattoo artist who is friends with the diner’s owner. The patrons’ conversation revolves around trying to find something good to say about a dove flying through a heart, but on the odd occasion one might find themselves in a stimulating discussion.

As for viewing the work, it is best to pay the most attention to the pieces by your table, as it is rude to bother others while they are eating. However, exceptions can be made if a piece is especially alluring.

The contemporary gallery (see locally: Semai Gallery, Ace Art, Platform and Plug In)

These galleries contain the bulk of the new art on display in a gallery context. They are usually white cubes, sometimes even with white floors, with bright track lighting. For the most part, the work is presented in a “professional” manner, creating a stale, almost vacuous atmosphere.
These are some of the most difficult galleries to feel comfortable in. Rarely is any context given to help supply the viewer with any shred of a clue about what is going on. Work in these contexts often has an “anything goes” flair; a framed post-it note with a Derrida quote and a lewd drawing of Chester the Cheetah would feel welcome in such a gallery.

Low talking is the norm for such spaces. And by low talking I mean no screaming, no strong emotion and no mocking taunts. It’s not that the art may not attempt to elicit such a response, it is that there is often so little context that any shouts of “Derivative!” or “Tripe!” may be met with the sidelong glance of an annoyed patron who is in on the joke.

The best advice is to not judge too quickly. Spend time with the image as you make your rounds. The average time spent viewing an image in an art gallery is somewhere near six seconds. Try to double that or more. Spend time with the work and examine, honestly, the things it makes you feel and think. Often art is overlooked because we seek meaning in it — like why is the Mona Lisa smiling? — as opposed to engaging her gaze.

These galleries are often dangerous for the obnoxious (something to which I can attest) as most of the artists are still alive and can overhear your rude shouting.

As for conversation, it is welcomed. Art is a stimulant to the mind, and the way the mind vents and forms ideas is through language. Talk about how you feel, and if you truly think the piece is successful — just not at openings. Never tell anyone your honest opinion at an opening.

The bigwig gallery (see: the WAG, the AGO, any place with a marble floor or wall)

The big galleries are very different. You can laugh and yell, as much as you would in a mall, and you can loudly mock the work. Those suckers are dead; there are no egos to appease.

Often the conversation is less focused on “Why are there 100 paintings of ducks?” and more focused on the mature discussion of the symbols and images used. This is because major, civilly run galleries provide the public with context to the question “How is this art?” No thinking necessary!

As for universal rules in galleries, there are few.

Don’t litter, be courteous to other patrons and basically act exactly as you would in a theatre or a restaurant. Now if you are one of those types who leave their garbage lying everywhere and don’t care about other people, smarten up. No one should have to have an obnoxious loudmouth in their theatre, restaurant, or gallery.

Believe me, I’m a loud mouth, I know.