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Monday, August 02, 2004

Five Simple Rules for Talking about Art

Weekend attendance at the Whitney has been down significantly this summer. Consequently, my gallery talks have been sparsely attended.

Yesterday's group was small, but it included an adorable nine-month-old girl who crawled around the floor while her mother listened to me speak. The infant stole the show. Neither Ana Mendieta's work (not even the work where she gets naked) nor I (I remained fully clothed) could compete successfully with the baby for the audience's attention.

With groups being a third their usual size this summer, I've been able to do more discussing and less lecturing than I typically do. I guess this makes me seem more approachable because over the last few weeks I've received some generous compliments from guests during and after my talks.

Feeling bolstered by the kudos and looking to improve the quality of arts interpretation world wide (okay, so I still find it novel and amusing that this blog is being read in ten time zones), I thought I would share some secrets I use when I prepare a gallery talk.

Here are my five rules for talking about art that's hanging in a gallery. Each rule has a Do component and a corresponding Don't component.
  1. Do develop an overall theme or narrative to structure what you are going to say. Don't overwork the theme while you talk about individual works. Instead, highlight the theme when making transitions between works (see Rule 5).
  2. Do select works to talk about strategically, ensuring that they allow you to develop your theme. Don't try to talk about everything on display. Limit yourself to a few select pieces and talk about them in greater detail.
  3. Do make a point of actually looking at (and getting your audience to look at) each work as you speak about it. Take advantage of the fact that you're in the presence of the piece to get your audience to look deeply at some detail. Don't get so lost in what you think is important about the work that you forget to show your audience how to look at what's in front of them.
  4. Do inform your discussion with biography, history, and critical theory. Don't, though, reduce the work to an illustration of biography, historical context, or theory.
  5. Do develop and use transitions to move your group from one object to the next. Don't ever move a group between works with, "And now let's go to the next gallery."

One of the best compliments I ever received on a gallery talk came from a visitor who approached me at the end of a presentation and said, "That was so interesting. It was just like reading a novel."

I now use that compliment as a touchstone for evaluating a talk before I start giving it. If it doesn't feel like a novel--with a theme, a plot line based on discrete components linked together with transitions, interesting visual description, and rich contextual support--I know I need to do more work on it before I roll it out.

Update: See this post for rule number 6.

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