Friday, June 8, 2012

Spring Clean Your Brain at the Museum

This morning I played hooky from work and took in the new show at the Seattle Art Museum Downtown. The show is called Ancestral Modern and it is a collection of paintings by contemporary  Australian aboriginal artists.  This collection was assembled by Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, who are husband-and-wife and serious art junkies. Bob and Margaret also collect the work of contemporary American artists, but the Australian paintings and sculptures have been their passion for some time.  They have made excellent choices and collected the work of individual artists in depth, meaning they have multiple works from each artist. This exhibit is quite large and takes up as much space as the recent Gauguin exhibit did. There is a lot of work and a great diversity of work. The artists in the show represent the physical and spiritual world with vocabularies that turned my brain inside out and gave it a good shake. That's the gift of living in a city with art museums; no matter what the weather is like outside, a trip to the museum can brighten your climate on the inside.

 I know many people are intimidated by art museums and large exhibits.  My first real teaching job was coordinating a freshman-level art survey class at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.  I had about 100 students each term and none of them were art majors.  Every quarter I made a deal with my students: they could write a paper or they could go on a field trip with me to Seattle to see galleries and the Seattle Art Museum. I hoped most would choose the field trip; after spending months looking at slides of art, I wanted them to see the real thing.  I knew that most were  art virgins that had never crossed the threshold of an art museum in their life.  My goal was to initiate them, help them feel comfortable in a museum, and do my part in creating future art patrons.

What follows is advice I gave my students for how enjoy yourself at art museums:

  • Give yourself plenty of time. Looking at art is best when you're not in a hurry. Plan to spend at least half a day and give yourself time to absorb what you're looking at.  Going to a museum is a treat for me, not an obligation I squeeze in between errands.
  • You don't have to see most shows in any particular order. Although it's best to see an exhibit in the order the curators have laid it out in, crowded exhibits often make this impossible. When I walk into a big show I tend to gravitate first to where there are the least amount of people.  I often walk through a show one way and then turnaround and see it again from another direction. 
  •  Go through the exhibit at your own pace and plan to meet your friends at the end.  That way you can spend as much time as you want and not have to worry about losing the rest of your party. I do not advise taking small children if you want to enjoy the show.
  •  If you really want to see a big exhibit, go several times and focus each time on a different part  of the exhibit.  The human brain can only take in so much information at any one time and really absorb it. When you get tired, you can miss a lot.
  •  Eat a good meal before you go and take breaks at the museum cafĂ© when you need to. As my friend Lori Talcott says,"Culture is famishing."
That concludes this afternoon's lecture. I highly recommend taking in Ancestral Modern.  It will be on display through September 2, 2012.