Etiquette under discussion

Jan Allen, acting director of the AEAC, explains art observation

The importance of respecting the gallery space is imperative when observing artwork.
The importance of respecting the gallery space is imperative when observing artwork.

Refraining from walking on a sculpture, for most people, seems common sense.

Jan Allen, acting director of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (AEAC), recalled a time when exactly this occurred.

“[High school students are] very energetic,” Allen said. “I remember one year some students were actually walking on a sculpture and I was quite quick to say, ‘please get off that.’”

Exhibit-viewing etiquette is in Allen’s blood.

“I certainly went to galleries a lot as a child, I did grow up in a family that owned art and appreciated art and thought art was important,” Allen said. “Then I did learn how to behave in galleries but I think also just by attending a lot of art events, because that’s my interest and passion.”

Given her extensive experience in the art industry, Allen has seen what can go wrong and, alternatively, what can be fun, enjoyable and productive.

The demographic diversity of the AEAC is vast.

From senior citizens to high school trips, Queen’s students to young toddlers, the AEAC has seen its share of characters beyond the works that give life to its walls.

Etiquette can mean very different things depending on the individual.

“[Viewing etiquette] is how you affect the atmosphere of the gallery for other visitors, so that you’re not interfering with their viewing experience,” Allen said.

There’s also a second tier of viewing etiquette, she said, referring to respecting the pieces for what they are.

“That’s sort of more like viewing strategies for approaching an artist’s vision, whether it’s work you’re familiar with or something you’ve never seen before,” she said.

Being aware of the surroundings, and the artistic pieces held within them, has never been so vital.

“We count on people being respectful of the spaces, the works of art themselves and one another, to make it a good experience,” Allen said.

“We are presenting these treasures, both historical ones and contemporary works, and we want everyone to be able to enjoy them and we need to also protect them.”

Basic rules, Allen outlined, include not touching the works, avoiding running, dancing or shouting and refraining from playfulness in the spaces.

For the inexperienced gallery-goer, these rules that seem obvious to one person may be unapparent to another, Allen said.

“[Rule-breaking is] not an issue here. I have been in spaces, museum spaces, where I know that people are encouraged to touch things,” she said. “I think sometimes that confuses people because then they think ‘I can touch everything.’”

The use of a gallery space is key to ensuring visitors are aware of rules, to avoid confusion, she said.

Communicating with other visitors is one aspect that Allen said isn’t as common at the campus gallery, unlike in Europe and the United States.

“It’s actually quite fine and polite to make comments to other visitors, and that’s not very much part of the culture here,” Allen said. “[It] really enhances the experience [and] it’s very informative because people have very different responses to works of art.”

Often the AEAC hosts in-house artist receptions. This is, Allen said, a moment for the artist to celebrate the success of their work.

It isn’t, she said, the time to show personal work for opinion from the artist.

“[One thing that] would be quite rude is to bring your own work to an artist. Sometimes people will do that,” she said. “It’s really to celebrate the achievements of the moment.”

However, Allen added, it’s certainly encouraged to chat with the artist for a short period of time and ask questions, regardless of if they are critical or in a positive light.

“I always encourage people not to be shy, not to think if they’re in awe of an artist for one reason or another that they shouldn’t go up and speak to that artist,” she said.

“Most artists love to speak to students, love to meet new people [and] are really glad when people come to their receptions.”

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