Empowering Art Viewers

One of the most valuable things you can do in your marketing is to teach people how to look at and appreciate your art.

It’s not just good for you, but a gift that will last throughout the lives of those who experience it.

I learned long ago when I worked in a museum that teaching people how to look at art empowers them and gives them confidence.

Most people in the U.S. haven’t been privy to a visual art education. They might like the color, imagery, or form, but they often can’t say why.

That’s me looking at Mel Ristau’s sculpture inside a locked building.
That’s me looking at Mel Ristau’s sculpture inside a locked building.

This lack of verbal skills isn’t their fault! They’ve never been exposed. But it means that many people feel stupid around art, and no one spends time in situations that make them feel stupid.

Spread confidence by educating viewers, and they will reward you with a higher level of engagement.

The First Thing You Teach

When sharing your art with others, the first bit of wisdom you should impart is that all opinions are valid. Everybody has their own life experiences that they bring to your art, and it’s important that they feel comfortable sharing with you.

Listen to what people say! Commend them for making connections between your art and what they already know.

Teach People How to Look

The biggest part of educating people is centered on teaching how to look at your art. This is why I insist that artist statements compel viewers to look at the work.

Encourage them to look at lines, shapes, colors, and textures.

Point to the unique qualities of your medium:

  • Notice how the layer of yellow paint is beneath the other layers. I did this because . . .
  • See the cracks in the wood? That happened because . . .

These may seem obvious to you, but in our fast-paced electronic world, these things usually go unnoticed.

Giving viewers permission to slow down and explore is a gift. Empowering them with skills is invaluable—to both you and them.

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21 thoughts on “Empowering Art Viewers”

  1. Thank you for this reminder, Alyson. Your contributions are quite valuable to our artist community. The information we know best is often the hardest to impart to others, because we have forgotten the baby steps that got us to now.

  2. Thanks, Alyson, Great post! I liked the example of the layers of paint, each showing through a bit, which to me speaks to the textures and layers of our lives, our emotions and our relationships, each bringing something different to who we are. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us!

  3. Alyson,
    “I did this because. . . ” seems really valuable to help move viewers from ‘how did you do that’ and ‘what is that made from’ – which are the only questions many people know to ask.
    So if I am asked a simple question, like, “is that oil paint?” or “what kind of camera do you use?” I can answer that question, but go on to answer the questions I WISH they asked, like, “why is this meaningful to you?” “is there a story behind this?” “why are you interested in this subject?”
    Maybe I need to practice this! Answering the questions I always get asked and graciously transitioning to answers to questions I would like to be asked. . .

  4. Alyson I think you’re right that the first step is to validate art viewers point of view and then help them deepen their aesthetic experience by elucidating what they see in our art. I find that the best way to educate viewers about my art is to engage them in their own art making practice and I keep art supplies for viewers to use at my open studio. I created A Thousand Artists: A Public -Art Making Installation at the Presidential Inauguration — see http://www.athousandartists.com — to do my part so that everybody has an art making practice of some kind. Not only would society change for the better, but all of our art making practices and sales would benefit. I encourage everybody to check it out, spread the word and consider participating in some way.

  5. Great and timely post, thanks Alyson! I’ll be thinking of this on Saturday during our open house event. I often find that while talking with a viewer about my art and answering their questions, I inevitably also gain more insight into why I do what I do myself, in those moments, so it’s pretty cool that I also learn more when talking with others about my own art.

  6. wow…something i have never thought about before…i guess because it has always been so natural for me! definitely a good thing for me to ponder about before my next gallery show this weekend…thanks!

  7. Julie Kaldenhoven

    I’m all about educating the public wherever possible. There are the folks who will resist any help to see things in a new way, no matter what. (These are the types you overhear in the gallery mumbling about ‘that abstract nonsense’ or ‘my kid could have done that’. Maybe the trick is to make an attempt to engage and be sensitive enough to know when to leave well enough alone.

  8. I used to always let the viewer discover and explore my work on their own. I thought that it was belittling to tell someone how they should view art. But, I’m finding as I show and share my work more often, my audience likes some guidance and support on what they are looking at…just as you describe, Alyson. I like the empowering approach and accompanying text is certainly more palatable in that mindset. The more straightforward photographs of nature I take are often accompanied by a description of where it is, what time of day or season, and other basic descriptors. My abstract and esoteric work always benefits from an artist’s statement. I like to add open-ended questions or some type of koan-like statement to ponder while viewing the artwork.

  9. I loved this post. My art is either abstract or semi-abstract and I often ask questions of viewers when I show in outdoor festivals. I am trying to blog and the writing does not come easy. This is an excellent writing prompt. Thanks so much!

  10. THANK YOU, great post Alyson!
    This is the best advice or reminder I’ve heard for ages. It so completely clicked, going straight to the core of why we do, what we do. I mean, through creative work we all want to share, convey, communicate or create a reaction in some way, don’t we?
    I’m lucky to live close to several wonderful museums on the French Riviera and often take visitors to the little Picasso museum in Antibes. There are always some who are bored and can’t resist the “my children could do that” remark. Instead of becoming annoyed, it has become my cue for bringing both Picasso’s work and my own work closer to the viewer. It usually brings my guest and myself closer too.
    This comment got so long that I decided to stop here and continue the rest of my thoughts in a post on my blog “Backtracking slowly forwards”. http://tittin.typepad.com
    Must not forget to mention that your post did wonders for seeing my artist’s statement in a new light. More work to do!
    Thanks again, Tittin

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  13. Thanks you Alyson, for reminding us to rethink our artist’s statement and to help the viewer along the path of understanding how to look at art. I sometimes forget that some people are not used to seeing art of any kind and especially abstract and non-objective art. My new exhibit coming up in January will be accompanied by tags with more than the title and price as well as a single page artist’s statement with a small picture of me on it. I learned a long time ago that people do like to see what the artist looks like, especially if it shows you working in the studio.

  14. Couldn’t agree more! How do people know, understand and appreciate your art apart from the initial subjective response, if they have never studied art. Teaching opens those doors to a deeper level of understanding in all subjects. How can your art have a value if a buyer can’t distinguish between a skilful meaningful artwork or a mass produced factory artwork for eg. Great blog!

  15. K. Wayne Thornley

    So true, so true. Honestly, other than my private, creative time in the studio making the work, I really enjoy watching people react to work at my shows and then approaching them to let them know I noticed their reaction (good or bad) and that sparks conversation. I always thank them for their comments and remind them that that is what creativity is about…expressing ideas, opinions, feelings…and that their opinions, informed or not, are just as valid as anyone’s because there are not right or wrong answers when it comes to how and why a piece of art connects with a viewer. (Side note: It is fun to have a partner in crime with you if you are doing a show, meaning someone the crowd does not know is part of your camp. Send this partner out as a drone to listen in on the REAL conversations people are having about your work. I have learned so much about how people thing about MY art and art in general from this little spy tactic.) Fun.

  16. Thanks ALyson It’s really amazing the tips you’re giving, I couldn’t imagine that I have to think like those who lookk @t my art and teach them something new.
    I always let them watch and apppropriate the work and try to be me but they can’t be me or tthink like me.
    Thanks again for your genuine ideas.

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