Art galleries becoming “third spaces”

What did you do during your last visit to an art gallery? Perhaps that’s a silly question; your answer must be “I looked at art,” right?

Not necessarily, or at least, not completely. Today, the relationship between cultural institutions and their potential “publics” is undergoing a significant shift, one that responds to the 21st century desire for connectivity and personalization and expands the relevance of art galleries to society.

By reframing cultural institutions as “third places,” a concept pioneered by urban sociologist Ray Oldenberg as a way to think about community building, museum professionals have turned the site of the gallery into a place that is neither home nor work, but something different, something more. It is a place where, as Oldenberg wrote, “You are neither family nor co-worker, and yet where the values, interests, gossip, complaints and inspirations of these two other spheres intersect.”

Is this what you would expect from your local? Maybe your local pub, perhaps not your local art gallery. But you should. More and more, galleries are trying to function less like quiet repositories of cultural objects, and focusing more on programming that offers open-ended interactions to connect art objects in meaningful ways with the visitors’ own ideas, opinions and interpretations.

In this social space of the art gallery, interactive and participatory conversations – formal or casual – have become the medium of choice for engagement and community building. In fact, one of Oldenberg’s characteristics of “third places” is that conversation is a main activity. It is what draws you to the site, allows you to connect with others and builds a strong, shared community identity.

And you don’t have to look any further than your campus art gallery for examples of this.

One of the Carleton University Art Gallery’s most well-known events, DOUBLE MAJOR, is a lecture series that brings together two speakers on one evening. After hearing the lectures, which have been on topics as disparate as hip-hop and DNA and cult films and statistics, the audience is challenged to come up with areas or concerns that the two subjects have in common. Questions posed to the speakers have been surprising, smart, witty and sometimes very funny. The group discussion is often exploratory, one question taking off from another, following paths of thought that, because they were unknown or liminal to the expert, can carry exciting potential for new ways of thinking about their field. CUAG provides the opportunity for these kinds of lively and engaging conversations to happen, bringing together people who wouldn’t normally talk to one another and yet who leave the gallery feeling a shared bond after tackling this challenge as a group.

Art galleries are also inviting contemporary artists to create interactive, experiential artworks to facilitate conversations. This fall at CUAG, artist Samuel Roy-Bois installed a large wood structure – a kind of “gallery within the gallery” – that you can climb and go inside, or sit on while chatting with friends. Next summer, our major exhibition Human Nature will include a work by Toronto artist Panya Clark Espinal called “Lost in the Woods.” The work is a picnic table. It is an unusual object for an art gallery too, but one that invites good conversation over food in a way that fosters camaraderie and collaborative thinking. Do you have to know about participatory aesthetics to “get” the art work? No. With both art works, whether it part of a casual lunch with a friend or an artist-facilitated workshop, your own experience makes the meaning through the interactions you have there. As Espinal says in her artist statement: “If we are lost, let us be lost together.”

CUAG is a great example of how art galleries are becoming a place that provokes ongoing conversations, ones that can be extended to the campus, the city and the world at large. It is a cultural commons, a place for connecting to art and each other. So next time you want to hang out with your friends, forget the café and go find a museum.

Fiona Wright is the Carleton University Art Gallery’s Education and Community Outreach Manager


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