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Apr 05, 2021

The Art Of Gallery Etiquette

Whatever your reasons for visiting an exhibition, rules of good behavior apply.

The Art Of Gallery Etiquette

Entrance to The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. | Source: The Factory

You know those viral videos of selfie-takers losing balance and destroying valuable artworks? Well, not everyone finds them amusing. Zoe Butt, the Artistic Director of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Saigon, says that art vandalism and rising smartphone penetration go hand-in-hand. But the problem is not limited to selfie mishaps. There are kids coming in as wrecking balls, touchy-feely art lovers, and loud armchair critics of performance art.

Whatever your reasons for visiting an exhibition — seeing the world through the eyes of a highly creative person; taking a break from work to boost creativity (or procrastinate); impressing a Tinder date with your encyclopedic knowledge of Champa Kingdom’s art — rules of good behavior apply.

As a rule of thumb, treat any exhibition space as a museum, not an amusement park. Be respectful of the work of the artist and that of the curator and be mindful of how your behavior affects other visitors. In this context, being respectful involves a lot more than just knowing not to bring a bánh mì to snack on (although according to my friend Hong Hanh, its trail of breadcrumbs would make a pretty unique piece of abstract art).

Installation view of the current group exhibition highlighting Nguyền Đứ Phương in ‘Home: Looking inwards to the outer world’. An exhibition also featuring Trương Công Tùng, Bùi Công Khánh, Nam Thi, Thảo Nguyên Phan, Võ Thủy Tiên and Tammy Nguyễn at The Factory. | Source: The Factory

Indoor voices

Unlike your typical fast-fashion brands blasting out upbeat tempo hits to put you in a carefree mood, the art world tends to steer clear of such crass salesmanship. So, adding a sound element to your art gallery experience is akin to opening a can of worms: all (disapproving) eyes will be on you.

Same goes for conversations. It’s ok to have them, as long as you keep your voice down. While you might see gallery visits as a fun group activity, others might prefer to wander around the exhibition halls in solitude. So imagine being lost in your thoughts only to be interrupted by the hair-raising screams of children bouncing off the walls or a loud business call that should have been taken outside. So, phones on silence, please.

Do your homework

You're here to experience the art. Do a little research on the exhibition and the artist beforehand so you can understand their stylistic choices and the history behind the pieces as well. That way, you won’t have to ask those around you for help interpreting art pieces for you. Better still, ask the gallery staff around you questions. What’s the deeper meaning behind this painting? What story is the artist trying to tell?

Installation view of the solo exhibition called ‘Lost from View’ by Hương Ngô at The Factory 19 June - 30 September 2020 | Source: The Factory

Wait for your turn and keep a safe distance

A lot of thinking goes into deciding how much empty space to leave between the artifact and the audience. By default, this is a DO NOT CROSS zone. Especially with installation pieces and sculptures, it's best to keep a safe distance from them if they aren't glass-protected. The last thing you want is a hefty fine for an art piece you clumsily knocked over.

It’s natural to want to get as close to the art object as possible and to be the first one to do so, but hogging the best spot for too long means others are not able to appreciate it the way the artist intended. It’s not an A-list celebrity, it's not going anywhere! So relax and wait for your turn to check in in front of the Mona Lisa.

Installation view of the current group exhibition ‘Within / Between / Beneath / Upon’ featuring artists Richard Streitmatter-Trần, Lê Hiền Minh and Thảo Nguyên Phan at The Factory. | Source: The Factory

No touching (unless the artist specifically tells you otherwise)

This is not an unspoken rule as most galleries will have signs up about this everywhere for you to see, but it's definitely worth mentioning since so many people seem to miss it. No matter how tempting it is to fiddle with the leftover acrylic paint from the painting of the Vietnamese lotuses, or to trace your fingers over the delicate etchings of the ceramic vase on display, don’t do it.

Showing me around the latest exhibition at The Factory, Zoe Butt recounts an unfortunate incident where a young man poured iodine ink over a painting thinking that the artist intentionally placed the bottle there for the guests to splash on the painting to reveal a hidden message; ultimately vandalizing it. Though an honest mistake, it cost both the man, the gallery itself, and the artist a great deal of money to remedy the issue since the original piece was made on rare heritage paper.

In another incident, a family of four were viewing the gorgeous fabric dresses designed by Thuy Design House on display at the Factory when the mother began tracing her hands over the delicate silk, and wrapping it around her body to show her children what it would look like on her. Though innocent on the surface, such actions potentially cause a great deal of damage.

Installation view of artwork installation ‘Up Against The’ (Produced in 2017 and made from invisible ink on sulphite pulp paper) by Hương Ngô. This work was vandalized during its display at The Factory. | Source: The Factory

Be kind to art and artists

No-one wants to be told off when visiting art spaces. So galleries typically count on the visitors’ good judgement and try to instruct them by means of discrete signage.

Galleries also don’t want you to be afraid of art; just to be aware of how elaborate the process of creating art is: not only does it cost money and require artistic skill, but the creative process is also deeply emotional. When viewers disrespect artistic creations by treating them as disposable, it often cuts much deeper than a casual gallery visitor can imagine.

Perhaps the most effective way to combat unintentional art vandalism is by increasing your exposure to art. Many think of it as an elitist and expensive hobby, but in fact entry to most of The Factory’s exhibitions costs as little as 40,000 VND for students and 80,000 VND for adults. So next time you’re looking for something to do, consider spending an afternoon in solitude, quietly contemplating contemporary Vietnamese art. Sans bánh mì and business calls, of course.

Installation view of the solo exhibition called ‘Lost from View’ by Hương Ngô at The Factory 19 June - 30 September 2020 | Source: The Factory