April 15, 2015 | Essays

The Role of Public in Public Art Galleries

An excerpt from the publication: Complex Social Change (2014)

It’s always too soon to go home. And it’s always too soon to calculate effect.
- Rebecca Solnit

When it comes to public programming, art galleries have a tendency to construct the equivalent of a 1910 prairie boom town. With the first stroll down the main street, a person reading a grant application or annual report might think that there is a long row of two story, well-kept buildings with activity bustling behind all that construction. However, stepping onto the porch and opening the front door, one is confronted with the disappointing reality of, at best, a single floor structure (with or without a faint hope of one day building that second level) or at worst, a lean-to shack propped against the lovely facade. There are a myriad of reasons for this pattern: decades of funding cuts to, and attacks on, the value of the visual arts; the pressure on art galleries to satisfy mutually incompatible demands such as producing events which generate funding support from a wealthy elite while also appealing to the general public with broad based approaches; the rise of new areas that need attention (websites, technology in the galleries and the offices, social media) with all their demands on the fixed resources and yet maintaining the traditional areas (exhibitions, collections, research, archives); and of course, the never ending ‘edifice complex’ – dealing with a building that is too small, too old, too drab, too expensive or falling apart at the seams.

As daunting as all these problems sound, they pale in comparison to the biggest challenge facing public programs in art galleries: indifference. There is a long standing hierarchy within art galleries that places curators at the top and public programming at the bottom – curators initiate and research the exhibitions while public programmers come in at the end trying to create activities and events that connect the public to the art, artists, and ideas in the exhibition. One good thing to come out of the major restructuring of funding to the visual arts – and by restructuring I mean massive funding cuts beginning in the 1980s to all public sectors – is that art galleries were forced to pay attention to their audience. As a result, there has been a shift to involve public programming, but also marketing, earlier in the process of exhibition planning. Yet despite this shift, it is still the norm to dismiss public programming as a much lower and simpler form of gallery activity; an area to be relegated to junior staff, in which curators and the director need never concern themselves.

I realize that I run the risk of committing a serious sin by acknowledging internal faults for art galleries as there is always the fear that if one admits to poor performance it will provide ammunition for those critical of the visual arts. Thus, there is a tendency to stay mum about systemic problems and to never venture into that lean-to shack propped behind the painted facade to avoid being confronted by the evidence. Equally problematic, the devaluing of public programs exists just as much within funding agencies and sponsors as it does inside art galleries. The kinds of information required about audiences for federal and provincial grants does not even come close to understanding or caring about what actually happens with audiences in art galleries. For example, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts asks organizations in the post-secondary program to provide the total number of “students and staff” who attend their events and the total number of “community members.”1 They do not ask galleries outside the university system to make this differentiation. The assumptions behind this defining split required in university gallery reporting are appalling. The stats being gathered presume that if a Biology student, a Management professor, or an administrative assistant from a Dean’s office comes to a university gallery event, they are not members of the general public. However, if they attend a civic gallery, they are. The assumption is that it is not hard for university galleries to attract students and staff and that these visitors are less valuable in terms of measuring success.2

Like the hierarchy inside the gallery, public programming comes in a distant second to the curatorial aspects despite the superficial lip service stated by funding agencies. These two factors mean that there is no encouragement for directors or curators to get into their exhibition on a busy week-end, during a family day event, or to spend time with regular gallery visitors. They give VIP tours and meet the press, but tend not to be in touch with the everyday experience in their gallery. There is also a lack of immediate consequences for not paying attention – galleries that have the shabbiest lean-tos for public programs plans continue to do well in their grants and with their elite donors. It is of course important to expertly produce exhibitions with significant artists who are doing interesting work. What should also go without saying is that it is important to expertly engage with your audience; to understand, care about, listen to, and respect your audience; and to generate programming that works with, builds on, and informs the exhibitions, collections, research and all the other activity in the institution. That is what makes public art galleries public. If they were private, there would be no need to give a fig about who attends or whether or not they make any meaning while in the gallery. But the art galleries I am discussing are public and this essential aspect has somehow been denigrated and pushed to the margins.

In “Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy: Why culture needs a democratic mandate,” John Holden of the Demos Foundation discusses the breakdown in the relationship between the public, politicians, and cultural professionals. Addressing the cultural system in Britain, but clearly applicable to art galleries in Canada, he states that: “The ‘cultural system’ has become a closed and ill-tempered conversation between professionals and politicians.”4 The public is left out of this conversation, ignored by cultural professionals in favour of giving all their attention to policy makers and granting agencies. With on-going cuts to public funding, and the turmoil this produces in how public art galleries generate revenue, cultural professionals have prioritized establishing legitimacy with their funders over making the case with the public. ‘Advocacy’ has meant producing ‘good stories’ and ‘convincing numbers’ to make the case for next year’s grant, rather than building a broad base of popular support.”5

Holden’s argument is as much about arguing for the necessity of engaging the public as it is on critiquing the existing problems. He asserts that the only way cultural institutions can establish true legitimacy and actually have value is in their connection with the public and he has the statistics to back up his argument that the public is more sophisticated about, and supportive of, culture than either politicians or cultural professionals assume.

People We Can Learn From: lessons from the gift shop and the security staff
The sophistication of the general public who visit art galleries is something I have long known – and that I learnt by accident, or perhaps to be more generous, serendipity. After completing my undergrad degree in Saskatoon, I knew that I wanted to work in the arts. Being both painfully shy and over-intellectualized, it never dawned on me that public programs was an option for employment. Cheryl Meszaros, the head of what was then called Education at the Mendel Art Gallery, spotted potential despite my obvious short-comings. Meszaros told me to apply for an Education Assistant job, hired me, and then trained me to talk to the public. Most of this training was more like being thrown in the deep end of the pool as my job included giving tours to school groups which the volunteer docents did not want to do. I can attest that if you can handle half an hour with a group of Grade Eights stuck in a gallery featuring Abstract works by Guido Molinari, in his black and white phase, you can handle pretty much any public speaking situation.

My work at the Mendel introduced me to the area of school programs within galleries and it also informed my interests during grad school as I began to explore issues to do with public art and public space. However, it was not until my second try at public programs that I developed a true appreciation for the people who visit art galleries. Serendipity again favoured me as Meszaros had moved to being the head of Public Programs at the Vancouver Art Gallery at around the same time I moved to Vancouver while completing my doctoral dissertation (on how the concepts of public and art operate together in contemporary galleries and art practices). Meszaros was building an innovative environment that included a sophisticated Open Studio with hands-on activities related to the exhibitions and hiring grad students to give short tours and then being available for conversation in the galleries. Thus, I experienced the amazing combination of writing about theories of the public during the day for my dissertation and talking to the actual public on Thursday nights and week-ends.

Leading tours and chatting with the general public at the VAG was transformative. I was impressed every single time I went to work by how happy and excited people were to come to the gallery and see the art. They were eager to learn, to encounter new things, to talk to their friends, and they were over the moon delighted to have a real, live person with whom they could chat. Sometimes their questions had no particular focus and they would just be open to having me tell them more; other times, they would have specific questions about something they had heard or read about the artist or the exhibition; but best of all was when they had a question that they had always wanted to ask but had never had the chance – they would wait to talk one-on-one and almost whisper things like “so, what’s the difference between sculpture and installation?”

Being a tour guide was enormously encouraging to me as an emerging curator. I was able to see firsthand the genuine, deep, diverse connection that people have with art galleries and art works. Overwhelmingly, people came to the gallery to learn and to engage. It was also an invaluable learning experience for me in what not to do – I was also able to witness the standard things that contemporary art galleries do which frustrate visitors in their desire to connect. Much of these negative aspects came from underestimating the audience and from not listening to them. As a junior staff person, I interacted with the security guards, the staff in the gift shop, and the rest of the front of house. We had a wealth of information about what worked and what did not work within the gallery. The VAG was doing better than most galleries in taking an interest in public programs, but even still, there was so much potential for knowing the visitors and their experience which was lost because the front of house staff had no standing within the gallery hierarchy and thus little to no means to convey the information we learned.

Animals We Can Learn From: lessons from DodoLab
Marginalized youth dressed as racoons and playing croquet in downtown Sudbury; an art gallery serving free pizza to hundreds of students and staff on campus; strolling the streets of cities from Hamilton to Oxford dressed in the clothes of a distinguished professor and the head of a starling; and wearing lab coats with the DodoLab logo while asking people whether they think the University of Lethbridge is laying its eggs on the ground. These do not sound like radical activities nor like the most serious approaches to contemporary art practice, but they are all events that have significantly shifted my approach to curating, to planning for the U of L Art Gallery, and to thinking about the details of how to genuinely engage with the public. These are a few of the events created by DodoLab in their work across Canada, internationally, and at the U of L Art Gallery. Their subtle, playful, and open approaches, combined with genuine interest in people, have been essential to informing the direction of the Complex Social Change project and my programming for the U of L Art Gallery.

With the Complex Social Change project, I am finally able to fully realize what I began to learn from talking with visitors as part of their experience of exhibitions. Working with Andrew Hunter and Lisa Hirmer from DodoLab has been essential to this development. It can seem that there are multiple obstacles to engaging with the public, but DodoLab demonstrates that it is in fact quite simple. This is not to say that such work is shallow or to be taken lightly, but rather simple in the sense of being eminently possible. All it takes is the recognition that the public is the core of what an art gallery does, and that public engagement should be primary and central to the planning, operations, and decisions within the art gallery. The added benefit is that carrying out such engagement is enormously fun and rich with possibilities.

Founded in 2009, by Hunter and Hirmer, DodoLab generates projects that partner mainly with art galleries, but also with other groups, to produce what they describe as “creative public interventions that are truly collaborative, encourage and evolve out of dialogue and critical reflection, and that strive for tangible and meaningful outcomes.”6 The originality of their approach makes their work hard to encapsulate. In terms of their projects with the U of L Art Gallery, I often say that bringing in DodoLab is like having the curator, artist, designer, public programmer, and marketer all in one. Their first project for the U of L Art Gallery was “The Important Things to Know About Eating and Drinking (In Lethbridge),” Fall 2011, and was part of the Food series. This project centred on surveying people on campus about what would go on a “Lethbridge pizza” and then having the pizza produced and served as part of a major event. Fun and inviting, the project succeeded in engaging with people who did not normally visit the art gallery and sparking conversation about local identity and a range of social and political issues related to food. Their second project, “The Anatomy and Etiquette of Social Change,” is a central component of Complex Social Change and began with a site visit and preliminary conversations with people on campus in March, 2013 and continued with the results presented as “Animals We Can Learn From” in November, 2013. (The final report on this project, created by Lisa Hirmer, is included within this publication and was published in the U of L’s magazine, SAM).

Engage the public in public.” This is a phrase that appears in all their statements and it speaks to the heart of what DodoLab achieves. They do not do performances, in the sense of presenting a fixed, predetermined presentation for a static viewer. They start with conversations – with the staff at the gallery to find out about goals and context and with the public to find out their concerns – and they often end with more conversations. Such an approach fits with their stated goal to create “tangible outcomes”. One of the biggest challenges art galleries face is being seen as irrelevant, nice but not a necessity, and disconnected from people’s lives and routines. When people who have never set foot in the U of L Art Gallery have a worthwhile conversation with people associated with the gallery, and change their opinion to thinking of the gallery as a place that is connected to them, that is a significant success.

If you are not speaking to the people with challenges, then you are not thinking.” One of the single biggest problems with not knowing about your audience is that it limits the imagination of the curator when they create exhibitions. If you spend all your work time with other curators, art collectors, and artists, then you are going to plan exhibitions, write text, and make all your decisions with this limited range of people in mind. It is important to maintain connections with a core of support, but such thinking underestimates their ability to relate to a wider scope of content and approaches. And of course the bigger problem is that it makes the gallery uninviting and unappealing to anyone who does not already fit within this inner circle. It might seem that it is safer and easier to have a narrow notion of audience and to assume that visitors are just like you, the curator, however, a safe and easy approach will not lead to innovative practices and it will not build the broad base of support necessary to advocate for public and private funding.

My favourite example of DodoLab creating something amazing through the process of “speaking to the people with challenges” was The First Annual Tournament of Beasts. Produced in partnership with the youth at the Sudbury Action Centre for Youth (SACY), DodoLab identified the frustration of the young people with the ridiculously strict rules around Sudbury’s downtown Memorial Park. The park was kept empty of people because of city policies banning a substantial list of activities while at the same time, the disenfranchised youth had few places to go instead. Working together, the youth and DodoLab came up with the tournament:

The project featured a croquet competition between a half-dozen animals (raccoon, bear, wolf, rabbit, deer and moose) in response to a sign posted at the park’s entrance what prohibited many things including golfing, cats and dogs. The croquet game was conceived as a catalyst to spark public discussion about the use and control of public spaces, specifically whether limitations and rules or encouraging use would result in more vibrant public spaces.7

The project is brilliant on many levels. It did not just give the young people a voice, it showed them the power of using gentle humour and subtle approaches to point out the absurdity of bureaucracies. The usual response is to become angry and lash out, but that just leads to being labeled as a hooligan and does not empower the person. Graffiti or vandalism do not help to demonstrate to others the validity of young people’s opinions. Giving voice to a marginalized person takes more creativity as well as commitment to true collaboration. The result is something inventive, effective, and appealing to a broad audience: after seeing a bunch of youth dressed as a racoon and a moose playing croquet, it is impossible not to laugh at the City of Sudbury and then recognize that their absurd approach is blocking the ability of a vital public space to develop, not just for marginalized youth, but for everyone in the city.

What is the internal culture? What are the barriers to change?” In starting the project for Complex Social Change, this was a core question the DodoLab team posed. However, if you walk up to people and asked these questions, most would be hard pressed to say anything meaningful. Instead, DodoLab recognizes that you come at the issue gently, sideways, through metaphor and play, and by letting people know that you really do want to hear what they have to say. For this project, they came up with telling the story of the dodo bird – not the stereotype people have heard that the dodo was slow and stupid, but the synopsis of the effect of rapid change on a previously isolated ecosystem. They told the story of a flightless bird, safe on the island of Mauritius, that had no natural predators and thus laid its eggs on the ground. When European sailors arrived, and released pigs and rats onto the island, the dodos and their eggs suddenly became vulnerable and they could not survive the rapid change. DodoLab assumed the best in the audience (that people can understand about changes to ecosystems and that they are interested in this subject) and they made it engaging by creating a mini graphic novel in which the dodo told her tale and the lessons within the allegory provided sparks for discussion and spring boards to launch new ideas.

For the first part of the project, DodoLab spent a week on campus talking about people’s perceptions of things the U of L was doing that could see the university suffer the same fate as the dodo. The timing could not have been better in terms of generating discussion because it happened that the Government of Alberta had just announced the shocking news that instead of a small increase promised to universities across the province, there was a significant cut, effective immediately. Not as shocking as ships loaded with European sailors releasing hungry rats and pigs onto a previously secluded island, but certainly a rapid and negative change to our ecosystem nonetheless. The bad news for the university worked in favour of the project as people were particularly eager to talk and willing to spend significant time in detailed conversation about the things they saw around them every day, what they would change if they could, and what they thought was working well.

The staff at the university were by far the most excited to talk to us. Like the front of house in an art gallery, their work is essential to running the organization yet they do not have a voice in the decisions and planning. We heard great ideas and we heard people say that they felt that they had never been heard before. DodoLab took the stories and ideas we learned and categorized them into 6 eggs that the U of L was laying on the ground – 6 areas where the university was at risk and was failing to respond to change. From there, they researched 6 animals that have adapted to change and from whom the U of L could learn. The story of the poison mimic frog resonated for me as it told a story of an animal who makes the environment richer for the growth of the next generation. My hope for the U of L Art Gallery, and the Complex Social Change project specifically, is that we make the environment around us better for everyone and in doing so, we become a vital hub, a necessity to campus.

People We Can Learn From: activists who stand in the rain
One of the barriers to change within art galleries is that there is systemic indifference to the public despite the obvious fact that the public are the reason that we have art galleries: they are a necessity to us, but we are not living up to our potential to be a necessity to them. I started this essay with a short quote from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark – “It’s always too soon to go home. And it’s always too soon to calculate effect.” Solnit’s words are clearly an encouragement to activists but perhaps do not seem connected to the issue of valuing the public. However, the quote speaks to my frustrations about measuring success in terms of audiences. With the current requirements for only simplistic numbers and surface attention to the area, there is a refusal to be interested in the small yet profound moments that incrementally build relationships between people and art, between audiences and art galleries. Solnit goes on to tell this story:

I once read an anecdote by someone involved in Women’s Strike for Peace (WSP), the first great antinuclear movement in the United States, the one that did contribute to a major victory: the end, in 1963, of aboveground nuclear testing and so, of the radioactive fallout that was showing up in mother’s milk and baby teeth (and to the fall of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, the Homeland Security Department of its day. Positioning themselves as housewives and using humor as their weapon, they made HUAC’s anticommunist interrogations look ridiculous.) The woman from WSP told of how foolish and futile she had felt standing in the rain one morning protesting at the Kennedy White House. Years later she heard Dr. Benjamin Spock – who had become one of the most high-profile activists on the issue – say that the turning point for him was spotting a small group of women standing in the rain, protesting at the White House. If they were so passionately committed, he thought, he should give the issue more consideration himself.8

For now, I am taking the approach that it is essential to think about the art gallery’s audience as an integral part of planning and thereby that I produce events that are engaging whether through topics that people care about, methods used by artists to include space for conversation and dialogue, and/or including a myriad of connected programs. For the future, and the next stage of Complex Social Change, I hope we can dig deeper and shift the assumptions about what art galleries can know about their audience and how this would be measured, valued, and reported. When forced to fill in numbers that I know are irrelevant and useless on a grant report, I feel worse than a peace protestor standing in the rain, but when I don a lab coat bedecked with a DodoLab logo and spend time chatting with people on campus, it gives me hope that such change is possible. It also gives me a wealth of great ideas for future projects and for small changes to make in the installation of exhibitions or the presentation of information connected to them.

I see my work as a Director/Curator of a public gallery as a form of activism, of changing the system from within and making my part of the world a better place. In this way, I hope that the U of L Art Gallery is like the mimic poison frogs that check on the pool that holds their tadpoles and adds nutrients as needed. I think this is greatly preferably to being like the crows that either haven’t even learned to drop nuts on roads so that cars crack them open for them nor like the crows who managed the first step, dropping nuts on the road, but not the second, using cross walks so they can pick up the nuts safely. I also hope that my work could contribute to better ways of measuring success, ways that are connected to what we actually do and to what we should or want to be doing: How well do we learn from observing our audience and the successes of other organizations? How much do we enrich the world for future generations? I might look a little odd when dressing up with DodoLab or seem uncool because I genuinely want to talk to the public at the gallery, but the gallery directors who are not talking to their public, they are laying their eggs on the ground and putting their galleries at risk of extinction.


[1] Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Post-Secondary Grants, Organizational Project Grant, Government of Alberta 1995-2012, http://www.affta.ab.ca/Grants/Organizational-Project-Grants, accessed June 4, 2014.

[2] For the sake of brevity, I am only addressing the tip of the assumptions in this superficial and one-sided differentiation. There are also issues such as: what does the term “community member” mean? Or that civic art galleries have a strong connection to, and dependence on, universities for their audience with close ties to Art students and Art faculty

[3] For the purpose of this essay, I am focussing on the norm and the problems, however, there are a minority of art galleries which take their public seriously and are making a concerted effort to integrate public programming with curating and to find more sophisticated ways of understanding their audience.  This difference seems to be creating a divide: the art galleries that are genuinely interested in being public and in their audience and those that are not.  As well, the Canada Council for the Arts has just launched a whole new public engagement strategy, but the depth and complexity of this approach is yet to be seen and nor can one tell how it will affect the visual art sector compared to the performing arts divisions which already have a different set of assumptions and approaches to their audiences.

[4] John Holden, Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy. (London: Demos, 2006), 10.

[5] Holden, 40.

[6] Lisa Hirmer and Andrew Hunter, “ Dodolab, www.dodolab.ca, accessed June 4, 2014.

[7] Lisa Hirmer and Andrew Hunter,” Dodolab, www.dodolab.ca, accessed June 4, 2014.

[8] Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. (New York: Nation Books, 2004, 2006), 3-4.

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