Signage and Not So Common Sense in Galleries

The Art Gallery of Algoma is currently featuring an exhibit titled Imagery from the Canadian North in its Project Room gallery. The exhibition contains works in a variety of mediums from the AGA’s permanent collection that were created by artists from Canada’s North. 

The small exhibit contains wall hangings, prints, drawings, paintings, and stone carving.  The pieces included provide a small glimpse into the rich artistic traditions in Canada’s arctic and Indigenous art in Canada.  I particularly enjoyed an untitled wall hanging by Joanne Akoptanuak depicting both humans and animals sharing a space.

However, very little contextual information was included in the project room about the featured artists, the impact of climate on art, and where in Canada’s North the works were created.  Two maps were included as part of the didactic material in the exhibit but didn’t really provide detailed context about the location of the Northern artists whose work was being featured.

While taking in the exhibition a few other visitors to the gallery were also in the space.  The exhibition features a few soapstone carvings on pedestals without a glass enclosure.  The signage at the entrance to the space did include a note about not touching the artwork.  However, during my time in the space I had to restrain myself when two other visitors repeatedly touched the uncovered artwork.  The one visitor also commented to a friend, “oh these pieces are uncovered, that must mean they want us to touch them.”  Cringing and sideways glares abounded.

If nothing else that experience reminded me of the importance of exhibition design, signage, and security in galleries and museums.  Things gallery staff might think are common sense aren’t always.  Having visible signage explaining appropriate conduct, contextual information, and educational information is a crucial part of any exhibition.

Ethel Stein Master Weaver Exhibit

Ethel Stein. Portrait, 1999. Art Institute of Chicago.

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the fifth post in a series about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there.  The first post can be viewed here.

One of my favourite exhibits during my visit to the Art Institute of Chicago was Ethel Stein, Master Weaver.  Located down in the basement of the Institute the exhibit included drawloom weavings created by Stein from 1982 through 2008.  This retrospective exhibition includes over 40 works that have either been donated to the Art Institute or have been promised as future gifts.

I was blown away by the detail in Stein’s work, the complexity of the weaving, and the thought behind each piece.  Weaving at the most fundamental level seems like a very simple artisan craft.  But the drawloom technique that allows for each warp thread to be controlled separately has tremendous potential for creativity, complexity, and skill.  Some of Stein’s work does at first glance appear uncomplicated but works like Portrait and Circus and Slapstick by Stein illustrate the artistic process and elaborate nature of her work.

In addition to the textile works by Stein the exhibit space includes a video installation.  The video shows Stein working in her studio and provides insight into the labour intensive, detail orientated nature of her work. For me the video also highlighted the vision, math, accuracy, and planning required to execute textile works on the scale the Stein has.  A copy of the short video can be viewed here.

The exhibition is located on the Lower Level of the Art Institute and is a bit out of the way.  But it is definitely worth the effort to find the one elevator that gets you down there.

Technology and Highlights of the Art Institute of Chicago

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the fourth post in a series about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there.  The first post can be viewed here.

When people say you could spend hours at the Art Institute of Chicago they aren’t kidding.  I spent a full day there as part of my trip to Chicago.   Overall I enjoyed the day exploring the galleries. There is a huge range of artwork and themes in the Institute and everyone should be able to find something that interests them.

There are ipad and other technology stations throughout the Art Institute.  However I saw very few of them being used during our visit.  It made me wonder about what type of media and digital interaction is most effective in museums and galleries.  In addition to the technology stations the Art Institute has a free app and open wifi.

Despite loving the possibilities of technology integrated into heritage sites I’ve rarely downloaded apps for the sites I’ve visited.  But while waiting in line for tickets to gain entry to the Art Institute I downloaded their app.  As much as I wanted to love the app I found it a bit awkward to use.  The app offers 50 tours categorized by collections, themes, or time limits.  The apps location feature that showed where you were inside the gallery was well done.  However including more than just the gallery numbers on the maps might have made it more useful.  The app does support some basic searching of the collections.  However this feature is fairly basic and not fully developed.  The app has potential but I still found myself relying more on the paper map and traditional text panels.

The floor plan and layout of the galleries in the Art Institute can be confusing at times.  This is mainly due to the how the Institute developed.  The first permanent building of the Art Institute opened in 1893 and since then eight expansions for gallery and administration space have been undertaken.  The nature of adding additions onto older buildings has resulted in parts of the Institute being disconnected and only accessible by one or two routes.  For example, not all of the galleries on the second floor are accessible from the same stairwell or elevator.  Even with good planning this can add some additional walking to a visit as you often have to loop back to access a gallery that is only accessible from one spot.

Some of my favourite exhibitions from my visit included: Ethel Stein, Master WeaverMargritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, and the public art section that includes Chagall’s America Windows. An interesting video about the conversation and installation of the Chagall windows can be seen here.

I also found the Indian Art of the Americas gallery interesting. I had assumed that this gallery would focus mainly on First Nation artwork from the United States.  The collection is much more broad in its scope and includes works from both South and North American with a large percentage of the collection being made up of Mesoamerican and Andean ceramics, sculptures, and textiles.

The gallery had more of a museum feel to it focusing on the history of the numerous Indigenous peoples and their traditional practices.  The gallery contained very little from the 1900s and didn’t address current trends in Indigenous artwork.  That being said, the Institute is well known for its Amerindian art and the items on display were well contextualized and highlights a number of cultures.  Though I did wonder how involved (if at all) Indigenous communities have been in collection, display choices,  and interpretation. 

The Art Institute is definitely worth a visit if you’re in Chicago.  If you have a limited amount of time I would recommend doing some research beforehand to map out what you want to see and planning your visit around must sees.  Looking at everything in the Institute in great detail during a single visit simply isn’t possible.

Slow Art Day

April 12th 2014 is Slow Art Day.  A day dedicated to encouraging people to discover art and the joy of looking at art.  The day also emphasizes the idea that people can see and experience art without an expert. 

Art galleries and museums internationally are hosting Slow Art Day events.  Most events are structured to allow participants to look at art slowly, by having people look at five works of art for ten minutes each.  Participants then discuss their experience of looking at art. The simple structure makes it easy for galleries to participate.

Started in 2009 with 16 museums and galleries in North America and Europe Slow Art Day has expended to have over 210 venues on every continent in 2014. The list of this year’s participating venues can be seen here

Locally, the Art Gallery of Algoma will be participating in Slow Art Day with art viewing from 12:00-1:00pm and Slow Food Lunch in the Cafe from 1:00-2:00pm.

Royal Hospital Kilmainham: Modern Art and Heritage Site

Following my trip to the Kilmainham Goal I visited the nearby Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) that is located in the former Royal Hospital Kilmainham building. Unfortunately during my visit the main Hospital building was closed for renovations and only a small new gallery space was open.  Despite this closure the grounds are beautiful and the small exhibition I had the opportunity to see was well done.

The Royal Hospital opened in 1684 as a home for retired soldiers.  The building continued to be used for this purposed for 250 years.  In 1984 it was taken over and restored by the government.  In 1991 the building opened as the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

The IMMA gardens are done in a classical style that reflects the heritage of the site.  This traditional 
atmosphere is contrasted with outdoor sculptural art.  The contrast highlights the usage of the space in a modern purposeful way while still maintaining elements of the long history of the site.

During my visit the only exhibition that was open was “Leonora Carrington: The Celtic Surrealist” located in the Garden Galleries.  The exhibit was framed as a retrospective of Carrington’s work and featured over 80 examples of her work in a variety of mediums including paintings, tapestries, works on paper, and sculptures.  Some of the works exhibited refer to Irish and Celtic lore while others explored the influence of Mexican culture.  Her artwork was also accompanied by a number of examples of her written work and journals.  It was interesting to see a mixture of archival material on display alongside the art exhibition.

The exhibit was organized thematically and was had interesting signage explaining the different styles and influences on Carrington’s artwork.  However, the exhibit space is fairly small.  During my visit there was a number of students in the building as part a formal class visit.  The shear number of students seemed overwhelming in the tight space, with many of them sitting on the floor sketching as there was very little gallery seating. 

Photographs by Andrew MacKay