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Galleries are for people, not just art

Opinion

Forget intimidating entrances and stuffy spaces aimed at ‘highbrow art aficionados’, modern galleries need to offer a range of different areas that are welcoming to everyone, writes Adelaide-born architect Ben Duckworth.

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If we think back a generation or two, going to an art gallery was a pretty big deal. Galleries were these formal, elitist, white-box-type spaces, but now they play a different role in society.

They have become places for people to gather, connect and interact over art; places to share a coffee or a meal in, or to engage with interactive installations. They’re casual places, made for the public.

Some of the most notable galleries worldwide – the Guggenheim (New York), Tate Modern (London), MONA (Hobart) – are all cultural destinations in themselves, attracting not only locals but tourists from interstate and worldwide. But what makes them so attractive?

It comes down to three main things: making the gallery welcoming to everyone, not just highbrow art aficionados; activating all spaces of the gallery, particularly the foyer; and making the whole venue distinctive and unlike any other gallery.

Making the gallery inviting to everyone

Historically, galleries featured grandiose, intimidating entrances where you would walk up the steps, past giant columns and into the foyer, which would feature the necessities: a ticket desk, cloakroom and toilets. Hardly warm and inviting.

That suited then, but now, in an age where we want galleries to be comfortable for as many different people as possible, rethinking how people enter the space is imperative. The first steps within the venue must be welcoming and engaging.

The Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art (California), designed by SO–IL∗, achieve this very well. At the front are courtyard spaces which feature art and are covered by a “Grand Canopy”; they’re what lead you into the building. So your first experience of the gallery starts before you even step inside – it’s a real blurring of outside and inside.

Tasmania’s MONA also executes its entry well – as you walk into the gallery you immediately start to descend underground and are completely immersed in the experience. The second you enter the threshold of that gallery space, you’re engaged in something unique, something you know is going to be an experience.

Reflections in a window of the Mona entrance. Photo: Lukas Coch / AAP

Once we recognise the varied nature of gallery audiences, we recognise that we need to offer a range of areas for different people in the foyer and other public spaces.

Areas need to allow different levels of interaction and formality: a place for quiet, reflective experiences, places where you can chat as a group, and places where you can participate in the art.

This diversity of spaces will connect with the diversity of people.

Activating all areas, particularly the foyer

One of the biggest mistakes galleries make in their design relates to that old-fashioned kind of formality, and we particularly see it in the foyer area.

You need surprise, activation, something unexpected in order to make a place special. Making things entirely focused on the transactional means missing an opportunity to really engage people.

Nowadays, there is also a big demand for gallery foyer spaces to be flexible – they should be able to be used for events, launches, presentations and performances, as well as day-to-day use.

We see this done well at Tate Modern in London. A massive party is thrown in the Turbine Hall whenever there is a rehang of the works, and it can be done because the space was designed with flexibility in mind. Not only are the parties incredible, they also engage the community in the gallery.

The Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Photo: Arpingstone / Wikimedia Commons

Another thing Tate has done well is its immersive entry. When you walk in, you go into a dark space which then opens up into the huge Turbine Hall. This avoids the mundane transactional process and throws you into the depths of the gallery immediately.

So instead of seeing a foyer space as just a place where people gather and get their tickets, you need to also think: “How can we immediately engage people?”

Making the gallery an immersive and distinctive venue

To make a gallery stand out as a tourist attraction in the way MONA or the Tate Modern do, it needs to offer something that no other gallery space does. People recognise somewhere special, and they recognise it because it’s unique and particular.

First priority should be the location – and not just the literal location, but also the feeling of the site. When you fly into Adelaide, for example, you are hit by the wonderful smells, like eucalyptus, the minute you step off the plane. That’s place-making.

Capture something about your region and celebrate it, amplify the characteristic. This is what MONA did by celebrating its wine region and its peninsula location right on the banks of the Derwent River.

HASSELL and SO-IL’s shortlisted entry in the Adelaide Contemporary design competition.

So, why are galleries like MONA, Tate and the Guggenheim the cultural destinations that they are?

It’s because they’re attractive to everyone.

First and foremost, they’re public places, made for the public. They’re welcoming. They offer events, activities and experiences where people can engage with one another, all of which is attractive to not only locals but also people from interstate and overseas. And they showcase what’s special about the location, making a must-see gallery that is without a doubt worth the travel.

Ben Duckworth is a principal at HASSELL architecture, design and urban planning practice.

 ∗HASSELL and SO-IL were one of six teams shortlisted in the Adelaide Contemporary International Design Competition.

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