Galleries Need to Move Away from the Traditional White Box

Modern galleries need to do more than just offer great art, writes architect Ben Duckworth.

The Louvre doesn’t do it, and neither does the Guggenheim. The Tate Modern’s new galleries make a good job of it, and the Hepworth Wakefield contemporary art gallery in Yorkshire gets close. These buildings connect people to the artworks and deliver a diversity of experiences for visitors.

While national galleries like the Louvre deliver on great art, the visitor experience is usually much less so – noisy, crowded, filing herds of people from one room to another. It’s a pity, as these are often ‘bucket list’ galleries that so many art lovers aspire to visit one day. Once there, visitors can say they’ve seen the Mona Lisa or their favourite Rembrandt or Monet – but will they rave about the overall experience itself?

mona-lisa-louvre-adelaide-reviewA bustling crowd photographs the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris

Modern galleries need to do more than just offer great art. The age of the ‘white box’ room in which to display masterpieces is fading. Today, visitors want more.

The past decade has seen a shift in how people engage with cultural spaces. Gone are the days when visitation was all about the destination piece. Now, a visit needs to be an event in itself – a concept that Australian galleries are now starting to understand.

We are all looking for more authentic and ‘human’ interactions in our everyday lives; we crave connection and immersion. We want to be surprised, entertained, indulged. We aren’t so easily satisfied with the status quo.

For cultural spaces, this means that the academic aspect is less important to visitors than it used to be. Technology too gives us more choices about how we engage with art; it can be viewed online and enjoyed through virtual tours, which means people need more of a reason to visit.

Seeing a piece of art ‘in the flesh’ is not the main motivator anymore; it is more about the overall experience – of which the art is a part.

new-tate-modern-adelaide-review
Visitors enjoy an interactive exhibition at the New Tate Modern in London

So, while a gallery will rightly focus on what is within its walls, it cannot afford to ignore the experience imparted by the building itself – and how this enhances or interferes with the display and enjoyment of the artworks. What is the experience the moment a visitor steps through the door? Does it embrace the visitor? Does each space connect with the rest or is it disjointed? How are the acoustics? Is the way finding intuitive? Is a given space adaptable enough to host a variety of media and styles?

This is arguably especially the case for showing contemporary art; it is so diverse, there are so many different ways and mediums in which it ‘happens’ and can be displayed, so exhibition spaces need to be adaptable in order to accommodate that.

This is not to say that the traditional approach is not valued – it just needs to evolve. People are still interested in standing in front of a piece of art and examining it from all angles, but they also want to enjoy a sensory experience, learn about the artist, understand the cultural environment in which the artwork was created, be surprised by some unexpected learning or associated display, and then go somewhere pleasant for a good cup of coffee or glass of wine to unwind and discuss it.

ben-duckworth-hassell-studio-adelaide-reviewBen Duckworth believes art galleries must consider new design principles to attract visitors

The focus needs to be on how to make that visit a more transformative and engaging event. From the entry, to the exhibition, to the café and the exit, it is all about providing an elevated and satisfying journey that can’t easily be had elsewhere.

At the New Tate Modern, this was achieved by creating a great diversity of exhibition spaces to cater for any piece of art. A continuous circulation route connects all these different spaces together, taking visitors on a journey through the building, giving them opportunities to explore and exercise choice about how they engage with the space and experience the art.

And as mundane as it sounds, the café, souvenir shop and other amenities are important parts of the overall experience (as well as a key revenue stream). Too often the gallery café can feel like an afterthought, with a cafeteria-feel, sad offerings and the smell of burnt coffee in the air.

new-york-guggenheim-adelaide-review
Visitors make their way through New York City’s Guggenheim Museum

But every gallery needs a welcoming harbour for visitors, offering an anticipated and enjoyable way to round out an outing, complete with an appealing design or unique views, good food and great coffee that all combine to make it a destination in its own right for catch-ups and business meetings (like the National Museum of Australia’s café in Canberra, which overlooks Lake Burley Griffin, or the Tate Modern’s with its vista of London).

As a number of galleries in Australia look to invest in creating new spaces to hold and exhibit their collections, they need to carefully consider how they approach the design of their exhibition spaces – and even the building itself – if they want to remain relevant to generations of visitors. They need to consider how these spaces can be used to leverage their treasures and enhance the visitor experience. The pay off is a reinvigorated institution, better engagement with the public, and the promise of a more satisfying and inspiring visit.

Ben Duckworth is a Principal and Head of Design at HASSELL.
Before joining HASSELL, he was project director for the New Tate Modern Project
hassellstudio.com

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