Looking at art is such a great way to spend a day in London. I have always done this; for the past thirty years, I have devised days in London that resemble army manouevres: 10am – South London Gallery; 10.30- leave and go to Tate Britain, and so on. It’s my research, my work. Sometimes, you see stuff that’s a bit rubbish; and sometimes work that stays in your head forever. It is so important to take time and look. A lot of students I teach ‘see’ a lot of artists on the internet; hey, me too, but there is nothing like actually seeing something in the flesh, to understand how it is made. And also, how the work is hung together; what picture is placed next to another has a huge impact on how you can understand an artwork. Sometimes they bounce off each other, like they are having a conversation.
Last Friday I went to five art galleries, including the Gagosian Gallery on Brittania St to see Rachel Whiteread’s exhibition. Entitled ‘Detached’, three sheds dominate the beautiful large space; acting as memento mori, encased in grey, acting as headstones for the people that used these sheds (that was my reading of it). She is well known for taking objects that we live in, and with – doors, windows, chairs and sinks – and casting them in concrete, plaster or resin. She has also made cast in resin of doors and windows, that are touched with pale colour, and again, are very beautiful. See-through, and yet not.
I can’t afford the catalogue..
But an interesting take on quality of customer care at the gallery. In my work, I have been delivering lots of training around visitor experience – how increasingly, visitor assistants and people working front of house in museums and galleries are outward facing – talking to the public, the visitor. And for many visitors, this is an ideal way to have a conversation about contemporary art, and it can be seen as an accessible way in. If you don’t want to read the (sometimes impenetrable) wall text*, you can have a chat instead (and vice versa) – not to get info, as much as to ask questions and together explore the possibilities of meaning within the work. This shift towards the quality of the visitor experience is an imperative for publicly funded galleries, and Arts Council England (ACE). One of the goals for ACE is that ‘More people experience and are inspired by the arts. That the arts are at the centre of people’s lives – more people are involved in arts in their communities and are enriched and inspired by arts experiences’.
However, Gagosian is not publicly funded. It is owned by Lary Gagosian, a powerhouse of the collecting world; always in ArtReview‘s “Power 100” for the top 100 important people in the contemporary art world. He currently has eleven gallery spaces: three in New York; two in London; one in each of Beverly Hills, Rome, Athens, Paris, Geneva and Hong Kong.
So, I see the show, which I think is stunning. Out in the foyer is a long table with catalogues on it, including a new one about Whiteread and the show, with an article by Briony Fer in it that I really would like to read. There is no actual reception, but a bank of computers on another long, black table with six young women working on them furiously. I hold up the catalogue (which doesn’t have a price on) and say ‘excuse me is this for sale?’ I get ignored – I guess I don’t look or sound important. I ask again, a bit shouty-like. The end one stops and says ‘it’s £ 52’. What?! I respond – ‘why is it so expensive?’ she can’t answer that: ‘I can’t say – I don’t work in publications’.
No smile, no acknowledgement – but aggression, defensiveness (on both sides). I feel like I am in a bad sit-com or comedy sketch.
And I can’t afford the catalogue.
Get the basics right
Sometimes it is just so basic, this customer service thing – it’s about looking up, getting eye contact and smiling. It’s about acknowledging one human being to another. In a relationship which smacks of power relations – you sit behind the desk and so you ‘know’ stuff I don’t – I am still the customer, who would like to be always right. Or at least, understand that we can both empathise with each other – that we are both human beings etc. It didn’t exactly ruin my experience of Gagosian, but it did make me feel a bit small; and obviously affected me enough to write about it.
Does any of this sound familiar?
I thought we had moved beyond this; it is all I dislike about the art-world. Still, at least I saw some good art.
* See http://interpretationmatters.com/ – a new website run by Dany Louise, looking at aspects of written interpretation in galleries: good and bad, and why it matters