Deep Thought Thursday: Talking with art viewers

First, a photo from my gallery hopping last weekend. I love the lines, textures, and colors on this facade and had to snap a picture with my new camera that I'm getting used to.

Now, something to contemplate.

When we went into one gallery, the artist was there. The gallery dealer told the artist whose work was on view that  it might be a good idea for him to come down to the gallery on Saturdays–the busiest day for the gallery. That way, he could talk with visitors about the art.

The artist "grabbed on" to us immediately, expressing an interest to talk with us about the art. In my old life as a museum professional, this would have driven me nuts. I wanted to be left alone with the art. However, I have a new life now. I now enjoy these situations because I get to see artists trying to relate to art viewers. I look at these situations as research. What do the artists do right? Wrong? So, I learned a lot and enjoyed talking with the artist and then we left.

Later, I asked my friend what she thought about the artist talking with us that day. She said, "I thought he talked too much, too much information, and he didn't give us any breathing room to just look. Though I did understand his art a little better after listening to him."

This is what I thought she was feeling at the time as well. I could sense her discomfort. Aha! More research for me!

So, the deep thought is really a deep question: How much contact with art viewers is too much?

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16 thoughts on “Deep Thought Thursday: Talking with art viewers”

  1. Carol Lois Haywood

    Anything more than a welcoming word that makes clear that the artist is on hand if needed seems too much to me. Then it’s the art viewer’s role to question or comment, as much or as little as they will. And the artist’s role to listen carefully and respond, even expand a bit. But then to shut up unless or until the viewer has more to say. The personal conversational style of the viewer should set the rhythm of interaction. And some will want none at all and need to have that respected. The role of a sensitive host with an unknown guest seems like the best comparison.

  2. Id, ego and Superego Maybe looking at it not like the art is separate from the artist in terms of the contact with the viewer will then allow the art to also contribute to the discussion. Alyson’s friends experience seems a bit like when someone is talking about the person next to you in the third person …. instead try to include them in the conversation and if the art is a bit bashful, well don’t fill its space with words, let it fill its own space with its own “words” & presence. Art openings are more then artist openings, and definetly as Carol points out, the viewer should lead the tone and rhythm of the conversation. I doubt that the artist should play the role of the gallery owner or curator. Their role likely is more like a suppporting actor to the “prima donna” – their artwork.

  3. If the viewer loves the work they can’t get enough of you…Then they buy something…Sometimes the viewer loves you & buys the work based on that like…I think the artist’s demeanour is dependent on a sensitive radar that should pre-decide if the viewing is complimentary or insulting…If they don’t like the work, chances are they won’t be too receptive to conversation…I try to be gorgeous, dressed exciting, fresh breath & happy mood – this tends to help with the first two second appraisal…then I am as generous with my time & energy as possible…but there is an unspoken invitation by the viewer, something like the visual cues you get in a discotheque (anyone remember disco?) to ‘come hither’…without the invitation, the artist is just annoying…like the creepy guy at the disco who just won’t take no for an answer…

  4. I like the artist to just let me be. If I like the art, I’ll engage the artist. If I don’t like the art, what kind of meaningless chit-chat can I possibly fill the air with until I can kindly escape?

  5. Michael Lynn Adams

    I agree with Carol. Good conversation (and sales) is more about listening than talking. Unless a viewer asks a direct question about a piece or collection I would rather let the art talk for itself, or reply with a question like, “how do you feel when you look at it?,” or “what do respond to most in the painting?” That sparks a conversation that focuses on the viewers interest and point of view and not my own.

  6. Wouldn’t it be a good idea if the people that want to be left alone would just subtly and tactfully let the artist know that? I’m sure the artist would appreciate knowing that. I know I would. Maybe the artist is just new to promoting their art and is on a learning curve. As the other posters have pointed out it’s a fine line to figure out who wants to be engaged and who doesn’t.

  7. This is all very interesting. Are people walking into a gallery situation more resistant to buying than someone who goes to a show, such as a fine art fair–where it is expected that the artist will be there “selling” his or her work? Bruce Baker advises to engage the person in conversation, draw them in to the work, and then back off & let them look. Having done a lot of shows where I am there, selling my own work–I would say that it is necessary to be sensitive to the customer’s desires to talk or not. Personally, I usually err to the side of not talking enough…..and that is something that I am working on. So, Alyson–what did you think? Did he talk too much? Christine

  8. I try to be friendly and speak to everyone who comes to an opening, but rarely do I actually talk at length about my work unless asked. This might be because my work is representational, so I don’t feel the need to explain – I’d rather have people enjoy it and ask what questions they may have. If I’m talking to a person about my work and they’re politely nodding without asking any questions or contributing to the conversation, I take it as a sign that they’d rather look in silence!

  9. Alyson B. Stanfield

    Well, here’s the thing, gang. I think I engaged him so he stuck around. But we really didn’t have much of a choice at first and I could tell it annoyed my friend. Keep in mind this wasn’t an opening–just another Saturday at the gallery. One expects to see the artist at the opening, but somehow the artist can be an intrusion if unexpected (as you all have surmised). Brad: Funny, I liked the car and the people and the reflection in the window. Made the scene about a feeling rather than a building. Maybe my cropping stinks. Christine: As I said, it was research for me, so he didn’t talk too much for me. But he walked a fine line. I think when I saw him coming I thought “oh no” to myself. Then, I put my data-gathering hat on.

  10. I don’t like to be approached by an artist when I’m looking at work. At an opening, of course, you enjoy seeing the artist(s) and having some conversation with them. It’s more like a party and the art may be seen as other guests that you’re being introduced to. It doesn’t feel pressured. When I’m at a show I know that I’m not good about approaching people, either. Probably because of my own preference to look quietly. I tend to put little signs around that may offer some explanation if someone is interested. And if they want to ask questions and talk about the work, I’m happy to do that – I just don’t want to push myself or my work on others. I wonder if having some kind of monitor set up with brief recorded interviews with the artist would be useful in a gallery – then viewers could explore the artist’s intentions and get a feel for them in a more removed way. I do like to get a sense of an artist – it makes a difference when I am choosing pieces to buy.

  11. Lots of good and interesting comments and thoughts here. So much seems to be about intuition. An artist needs to be sensitive to other people’s desires, something which may be difficult to discern sometimes since people looking/shopping often have their guard up. Having had my own shop/gallery for two years I learned alot about this issue. Some people wanted to have a full conversation, others didn’t want you to even look at them while they looked at the art. It’s all so personal, looking at and experiencing art, isn’t it? There’s probably no one answer here, just something we all need to be aware of. I wonder if the average person has any idea of all these things we think about and consider as artists?

  12. As an artist/gallery owner I understand this quandary. Well, I am acutely aware of it… Understanding is another level. When people enter I (if I’m there), or the two other staff members always greet them, and offer to help if needed. Then we give them some space, and after a reasonable interval if they seem interested we politely ask again, in case they are just hesitating to interrupt. Occasionally if people realize that I’m the artist it becomes a big deal… which is always somewhere between gratifying and mortifying. But if they ask me to talk about the work it’s always a delicate dance for me about how much to say. I don’t want to overwhelm them with the complexity and narratives and passion behind the paintings. After all, they might be seeing something entirely different in the work after all. But I do want to give them enough info to keep them looking. It really boils down to paying very, very close attention to body language and any other possible clues. Sometimes my presence and stories help a sale, sometimes it blows them away. I’m still working on it.

  13. Great conversation. I won’t return to a few galleries because I felt like a target when I visited. Artists who insist on inserting themselves into an otherwise enjoyable day just looking are a real turn-off. It can’t be that hard to see when someone doesn’t want to continue a conversation. Most of the comments here have it right; in a gallery setting, let the customer dictate how much conversation to have. Surely there are ways to say ‘hello, I’m available’ without making people want to run and hide!

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