Hacking the Gallery!
How to Get Teenagers into Art
Teenagers in art galleries, possibly not an obvious combination, but as galleries and museums aim to diversify their audiences (and income streams), teen-focussed initiatives are becoming common. The Tate has a whole section of its website dedicated to young people with exam help, careers advice and resources, while the National Portrait Gallery boasts a Youth Forum, with free art sessions for 14–21 year olds.
What about smaller, regional museums? Do they have the resources to carry out similar programmes and freely offer such workshops and online content?
York Museums Trust, runs the York Art Gallery, Yorkshire Museum and Castle Museum, all in the historic, tourist hotspot of York. The Trust has already seen its annual income drop from £1.5m to £600,000 in the last three years with further cuts expected, and the trend is repeating across the country.
The York Art Gallery already employs a number of specialist stewards to guide visitors around the galleries, with regular short talks on the artworks and Q & A sessions for visitors. This post will discuss how this existing feature could be used to tailor tours towards teenagers, by using a traditional form of presentation, but introducing non-traditional content. Following the framework of Museum Hack’s tours in various major US institutions, the plan is to provide a teenage audience with a tour of the museums which is fun, interactive and introduces them to the artwork, but doesn’t constrain them to traditionally perceived gallery etiquette of quietly contemplating an 18th century portrait whilst musing about brush strokes.
Aimed at teenagers from 14–18, the tour takes a light-hearted look at art, exploring the characters painted, non-traditional ways of looking at the objects and allowing them to explore the galleries through the portraits. The tours will be roughly scripted, with time built in for activities, questions and chat amongst the participants, with the tour leader aiming to entertain and provoke rather than traditionally educate the audience.
The Tour, a Rough Guide
The tone of this tour needs to be established from the outset. When introductions are made, the guide should make every effort to create a relaxed and open rapport with the group, setting an example by introducing themselves thoroughly and irreverently. It should be made clear that, while the guide may know a bit about the works of art in the gallery, they are not the ‘expert’ and all interpretations are valid interpretations.
Snog, Marry, Avoid
Based on the popular game often employed for distraction on long school coach journeys, and which also inspired a BBC reality television show, Snog, Marry, Avoid presents three different individuals and asks players to rank them against those categories. In our interpretation, the tour group is led into the gallery space — one of traditional, and more contemporary, fine art portraits — and the game quickly outlined for those who are unfamiliar with it. The group, as individuals, are given a few minutes to choose three portraits of people to satisfy the categories, and are then asked to vote with their feet, standing first by the portrait of the person they would ‘snog’, then by that of whom they would ‘marry’ and so forth. There is the option to abstain for anyone who might feel uncomfortable with such an approach. The group’s choices provoke the tour guide to giving entertaining facts and stories on the circumstances of those paintings, the artists and the subjects, and may encourage participants to think beyond immediate judgements (we can hope).
This is a loud activity, designed to create laughter and break the authoritative atmosphere of a traditional, fine art gallery space. Through laughter and humour, the group not only assert their own presence in the space, but the information provided by the guide may unify the group through moments of joint, entertaining discovery.
There is a stairway lined with portraits between the previous exhibition space and the next, offering the opportunity to continue the game. The hard surfaces here create good acoustics, also encouraging a continuation of noise and conversation.
Moving to the ceramics gallery, the guide segues into pointing out works of art that lack overt sex characteristics, but which lend themselves to being anthropomorphized. Instead of objectifying the subjects here, the group is asked to vote on whether they think a work “reads” as male or female, and are then encouraged to discuss why they came to those conclusions. They are then given the reins to find other objects that may prompt the same voting and discussion. This allows the participants the chance to talk about issues like gender representation and dynamics in non-confrontational ways, taking the weight off of their own personal situations and displacing it onto objects that cannot, actually, be classified objectively one way or another. (There’s no right or wrong, there’s just discussion!)
The Flaneur — a Guide to Creating Randomness
In the final space, a high-ceilinged room filled with a variety of genres of painting and sculpture, both traditional and contemporary, the guide gives a brief and entertaining talk on how the curator, the artist or the guide themselves have just controlled the actions of the group through their choices of presentation: the curator controlled which pieces were in any one space and how the relationship between them subtly determined the way in which they were viewed; the artist controlled the impression you received of their subjects — why did you pick a certain subject to ‘avoid’?; the guide controlled how you engaged with those subjects. The group is then introduced to early C20th Paris — hear that accordion, smell that French bread! — and the Flaneur. The Flaneur is that person watching everyone go about their daily business; the Flaneur notices objects and connections that go unnoticed by others, and they undermine authoritative expectation by using randomness as a rationale for discovery.
The group are encouraged to flout curatorial control, instead embracing randomness to determine a unique route around the entire building. Using a starting point, the guide suggests, rather than ambling along a wall from painting to painting, that the participants follow the gaze of a painting or sculpture’s subject to lead them to the next subject, and so on. Such an approach may lead to the inclusion of unexpected objects and views: the leaflet stack, a window, a light-switch etc, creating unexpected and individual meanings and connections. Not only does this undermine the curator’s control, but it also frees the participants from their own inherited understanding of what it is to behave ‘appropriately’ in a gallery context. With any luck, such a route might lead them to the café!
In attempting to approach gallery engagement in an unconventional and experimental way, certain issues and criticisms will surely follow. Firstly, all efforts must be exercised not to allow the forced participation rhetoric to be adopted by the gallery in an attempt to be seen ‘reaching out’ to young people. They key focus for hacking the gallery is to create an inclusive, non-authoritative tone independent of heritage organisations. The removal of the expert hopes to put culture, heritage and the arts back into public hands and imaginations. However, inviting independent tour guides to operate freely in these spaces may open up the market to pure commercialism and exploitation of willing parties.
Although Snog, Marry, Avoid may present itself as harmless fun aimed to spark excitement and engagement of young people, the concept may receive criticism by encouraging sexualisation and objectification based on appearances, distracting the participants from perhaps more meaningful ways of interpreting and forming personal connections with the artwork. This idea may be better suited for a more mature audience, as performed by Museum Hack, by offering tours for (well behaved) hen and stag parties looking for something different.
By introducing contemporary concepts of gender bending, this activity may also include an element of activism in the heritage setting. The established spaces of culture could be utilised as a relevant setting for raising awareness and confronting issues across a plethora of groups and communities. If the heritage market is to profess its significance in creating well-being, it needs to be willing to step outside of its boundaries and engage in contemporary issues affecting their audience, who they must also understand is everyone.
The embracement of the Flaneur philosophy of observation certainly can provide unique and individual insights into museum and gallery collections as well the spaces between objects and artwork that otherwise fade into background obscurity. The phenomenological experience and the freedom of movement within the gallery can create subjective interpretations, removing the need for the expert. However, the gaze of a painting or sculpture can of course be determined by the curator as can the spaces in-between. To truly create a subjective experience controlled by the visitor, the curation of objects and artwork could be handed over to them. This, however, is for another time. With an overall theme of challenging interpretation, these ideas present three distinct attempts to diversify audience engagement and question the established methods practiced in cultural heritage management. However, can these ideas be adopted by the heritage authorities, or will this lead to their instant sanitisation? And if these ideas are to be in control of an independent and private instigator, how soon will the heritage market be completely engulfed in commercialism? Is heritage management, in fact, the necessary evil…?
Authors: Louise Calf, Katie Campbell, Meghan Dennis, Alice Green, Andrea Marcolongo, Benjamin Richards, Inez Williams