The Art Doctors started the Who’s Afraid of Contemporary Art 2018 programme at Leeds Art Gallery’s Art Chat and Meet & Make groups in April.
We have been finding out what people think about art in Leeds by joining the Art Chat and Meet and Make drop in sessions on Fridays at Leeds Art Gallery. The people attending the sessions every week have created an open, friendly space to celebrate and challenge art and how we connect to the world through it. We wanted to find out how people experience the art gallery, how it feels being in the space, and how we become connected and confident to take part in art activities.
Over four sessions we have taken part in the Art Chat conversations exploring a fantastic range of subject matter from how we connect to the work, new ideas of how to make galleries more interactive to the importance of the gallery as a free public space in the city.
The Meet and Make sessions have been opportunities to enjoy making together and create personal and group art works. To celebrate the passion, ideas and friendships we created a new banner and flagpole to make the groups more visible in the gallery and made art journals so we can record our thoughts and feelings about our art experiences through the year.
We gathered around Frank Auerbach’s painting Maples Demolition, Euston Road, 1960 and thought about how we look at the work, what the artist might be feeling, what kind of experiences do we have and how we feel in art galleries. The thickness of the paint and the way it has been applied made us want to touch it and smell it. We wondered why he painted the same scene many times and discovered that Auerbach had come from Germany on the Kinder Transport, so maybe he was focused on capturing something, the same thing over and over again because of his changeable and uncertain childhood. Perhaps he saw his studio and painting as a safe way to be able to view the changing world. We wondered why museums have interactive aspects to displays so people can use different senses to understand and galleries tend not to. We would love to be able to touch and feel the paint, its smell evoking something of the artist’s experience. It would give us a greater understanding and connection with it.
We then moved to sit in the Central Court upstairs, a large, bright, white space with a big sculpture by Alison Wilding in the middle. With seating, wi-fi and charging sockets it has been designed to be somewhere to hang out, linger, meet people. This fired us up to think of ‘what can happen here?’ and we came up with lots of ways the space could be activated – dance, a carpet, bigger cushions, colour, music, a social space, plants, local art. Standing on the white seating we felt transgressive and this opened up a discussion on how we feel in galleries and codes of behaviour. What we feel we can and can’t do, or should and shouldn’t do!
This became an ongoing theme through later sessions.
touch sound immerse in voice do
Meet and Make
In the afternoon Meet and Make set up tables for making in the main entrance area next to Rodin’s sculpture.
We made a flagpole celebrating the creativity of the group that could be carried around for Art Chat to make it more visible and welcome new people to take part. The public making and talking together seemed to change the atmosphere, with lots of people stopping to ask what we were doing, lingering and some joining in. The space felt animated and sociable, giving people permission to chat and connect together and share their thoughts.
Questions we also considered:
- Ways of inviting people into a space to linger and talk.
- What can these activities offer?
- Can this improve mental health and wellbeing?
connecting sharing ideas action social
At the second session we decided to talk about the building, inside and out. Who feels happy to visit galleries and how does accessibility and the design of the building affect this?
We talked a lot about how art can be a way to connect to each other, offers diverse experiences and perspectives, and a space to have a conversation potentially about anything.
Sitting in the café chatting feels quite different to standing outside. The architecture can seem imposing, difficult to access physically. We felt the Victoria Gardens offers lots of opportunity to bring the inside out, its seating and openness and daily route for many and we discussed how striking the giant King Kong statue was outside the Henry Moore Gallery in 2017.
This led onto sharing experiences of other exhibitions and places and examples of feeling drawn in, either through the theme of an exhibition, the activities going on inside or the way the space sends out messages.
Being able to access the space easily, putting belongings in lockers so that we can feel relaxed and receptive to new experiences in the gallery are valuable elements in making the space feel welcoming.
Is there a feeling that fun, pop art work is not serious enough – humour helps people to relax and join in.
fun humour lockers outside information
Meet and Make
Setting up the space for making in the main entrance area again we made Journals to be able to record our individual experiences of art through the year in Leeds and anywhere else and thoughts we have about what we might like to see happen. Mixing up papers and threads every book was very different and communicated each maker’s personality and responses to art and making. Again, people visiting stopped to talk and some made their own journals.
colour making talking
The exhibition Natural Selection by artist Andy Holden was the focus of this week, where the connections, similarities and differences between art and museum exhibits was the focus and what the artist’s role is, where making takes place and how information and ideas are communicated differently in these two kinds of spaces. The artist’s talk that several people in the group attended was discussed as useful way to find out more but wanted to have more involvement in the conversation and ask questions about the subject, how things have been made and making the process visible. This show triggered a great discussion on what is creativity, that for some art can open up conversations but for others it distracts from the subject and imposes a personality onto something made by others. Is the artist more important than the birds and their nests? We enjoyed touching the ‘egg’ carefully looked after by the gallery assistants and the accompanying books, in particular Rachel Carson’s book The Silent Spring that has been so important in the ecology movement. The show provoked a lot of debate.
How are things made?
Meet and Make
In the spirit of the morning we decided to explore the gallery through action and play and try out make costumes and identity props in the Meet and Make session. Using the space and light of the Central Court as a workshop space we made power badges and shiny conversation capes with statements on the back expressing something of our response and how we might interact with others through these and invite them to share their thoughts with us.
The capes were displayed and photographed in superpower poses.
BOOM talk more
At Art Chat 3 the group gathered on stools at the top of the stairs, surrounded by sculptures, images and the portrait wall. We observed visitors’ behaviour as they reached the top of the stairs, studying how they navigate the space, choices in what to look at next and how they look at work. We talked about how and why we visit the gallery, sometimes to explore, for some space, to look at something specific and how much information we want or don’t want and the ways it is available. People shared experiences of other places – the punk show in Armley, the white balloon installation at St Ives in Cornwall, creating art on iPad at Tate Modern to be projected publicly and the Pink Floyd exhibition at the Victoria and Albert in London with accompanying music on headphones, sound really changes the environment and hence the experience. This triggered more ideas for Leeds and the Central Court and ways to represent the people of Leeds in the spaces.
explore share experience
Meet and Make
In the last of this series we opened up the ways we encountering the space and looking at art through action, and using our bodies to interact with art in the galleries in playful ways. Play and performance is a great way to explore and find new ways to understand the world and this really happened in surprising moments of physical action and new interactions.
We set up in the Central Court upstairs with a publicly displayed list of potential actions and moved through the galleries testing these out and improvising together. Thinking about the previous conversations about behaviours that feel transgressive like standing on white benches we became performers wandering, dancing, mirroring each other and lying on the floor and looking for other objects as if they were art. Why not?
- All gather around a spot on the wall/ ground and see how many others we can attract.
- Form a human ring around a sculpture.
- Shoes off!
- Stand in a line in front of a painting.
- Walking around the space leading with a different body part
- Lie down to feel on the floor
Queuing up in front of the Victorian painting Retribution by Edward Armitage, we waited for our turn to look, experiencing anticipation and the fun social exchange of a ‘happy’ queue. Because we were ‘playing’ in the Victorian gallery, queuing up and lying on the floor to look at the glass roof we met musician Rob, visiting the UK from California, who then played a song in the space on his ukulele. The music transformed the space and the pictures in it into something quite magical, creating a wonderful unique moment for everyone in the space. This only happened because we were playing. We repeated this upstairs in the Central court for a quite different mood and recorded his song for the group.
Talking together over tea and biscuits we shared our thoughts on the experiences and how our communal enjoyment made our appreciation greater and probably more memorable.
excited, a sense of freedom, noticing different things, connect in new ways
“I have never been to an art gallery that does this stuff”
Rob from California
September 2018 – update
The Art Doctors have invited the groups to think about what they might want to do as part of the Takeover Day on November 24th at the Art Gallery and share they growing knowledge and experience with visitors. We will be discussing how to make these happen in September and October