This post is in response to a call for submissions by The How-To Issue, a fun, constructive project responding to a recent literary controversy. 

How to Spend Time with a Work of Art

Out of curiosity, I recently researched visitor reviews of a small museum where I’m an educator. While I was pleased, generally, with the enthusiasm reviewers had for the collection, I was astounded that post after post mentioned that, given the size of the space, one could cover it in half an hour. Wait, I thought. When I lead group visits to the galleries, we look at no more than five objects in an hour—sometimes, we only cover three. I’ve worked there for four years now and still find more to see.

Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised—I’ve seen statistics that say museum visitors typically spend mere seconds in front of each work of art. I don’t think these people are the enemy—just walking through the door of a museum places them on the side of good. What I think is that not everyone knows how to spend time with art. And I think that if they did, they would.

Here are some questions to ask and answer for yourself next time you are standing in front of a work of art.

  1. Form a couple of first impressions from a few feet away. Ask yourself, what is going on here? What do you see that makes you think that?
  2. Step closer. How does the work of art change as you move towards it? Are there details you didn’t notice before?
  3. Close your eyes and picture the work of art. What stands out in your memory? Open your eyes and compare—was it the colors you recalled? A specific form or shape? Are there any elements you didn’t recall? Why might that have been?
  4. What is the tone or mood of the work of art? Does it have a point of view?
  5. How would it feel if you could touch it—both the actual object and what is being portrayed? Name the textures. What sounds, smells or tastes could you associate with it?
  6. If the work is narrative, imagine it as the center panel in a comic strip or story board. What might have happened five minutes earlier? Five minutes later?
  7. Look to each side and notice the works of art installed beside the one you are studying. What do they have in common? Is there a thematic or stylistic resonance you can pick up on? How are they different?
  8. Does the artwork remind you of anything in another medium—a song, a movie, a book or a poem?
  9. If you were to describe the work of art to someone who could not see it, what would you say? If you only had one sentence to describe it, what would that be? What about only three words?
  10. Only after you’ve spent time exploring the work for yourself, read the label or wall text. Does the information you learn change the way you think about the artwork? If so, how? If not, why not?

That should take at least ten minutes, right? Happy looking!