People think I get paid to sit around and look at pictures all day.
Well... I sort of do. Just not in the dismissive, easiest-job-in-the-world way they think. Being an arts educator means wearing many hats and few of them fit perfectly. There's the teacher hat, the writer, the artist, the budget-planner, the coach, the counsellor ... but one that I take very seriously is the host.
One of the most important things I want to accomplish in my work is to make people feel comfortable and welcome in the gallery. For those of us who have been visiting galleries all our lives this may seem easy, but so often I see people who are coming (often reluctantly) to the gallery for the first time, as parent-chaperones, guests of friends or as part of a corporate programme. They have often decided that they are not going to enjoy their visit because "they don't know anything about art". They are afraid of looking foolish or being wrong so they just don't try to engage with the work. Especially when it's contemporary. Sometimes they want to but just don't know how.
As a good host, I must make my guests comfortable in an unfamiliar setting. If I can’t do that, nothing else I do with them matters because they won’t enjoy their time with me and they won’t come back. People must be welcomed to art experiences on their terms and be able to have their voice heard. Even if that voice starts with "my kid could do that".
I spend a lot of time learning about the art on display, educational theories and current trends in museum learning. But I also think about ways to make others feel as excited about that art as I am. As an educator, my job is to mediate the space between the art and the viewer, providing some interpretive content at times, but also facilitating the viewer's own independent experience, and allowing them the opportunity to develop a transformative experience for themselves. At its core, art appreciation is about seeing art and forming an opinion. Everyone can do that.
Here's what I have learned:
Start with something comfortable.
Encourage engagement by asking questions that relate to the visitor.
Make people laugh by saying something foolish.
Don't provide more information than they want at once.
Once, they've relaxed throw them a curve to make them think.
Remind them of what they've learned on their own and how they succeeded.
And always obseverve your audience to adapt to them.
Kind of sounds like being a good party host, doesn't it?
Laurie Kilgour-Walsh is a confirmed gallery nerd who is passionate about art and believes that art-based experiences are essential for everyone. Her experiences include working as the Educator at the Art Gallery of Hamilton since 2006 as well as work at several other galleries in the region. She spends her days thinking about ways to engage visitors in the arts through tours, classes, individual encounters and active social interactions with art. As a visual artist, she maintains an active studio practice, working in mixed media in a studio littered with scraps of old books, rusted metal, insect wings, and carefully hoarded treasures. @lauriemkw