Tag Archives: audience

‘The time it takes to peel an orange.’


Over the last few weeks I’ve noticed a lot of media interest in, and some quite strong critique, of the National Gallery’s decision to allow people to use their mobile phones to take photos of artworks in its galleries. Several writers lamented this decision, suggesting that photography hinders rather than encourages engagement with artworks.

Commenting on this debate, journalist Archie Bland, writing in The Independent, quoted some interesting and conflicting opinions about the time needed to look at and understand or ‘appreciate’ an artwork. Here are some of the amusingly alternative timescales suggested in his article:

  • As long as you like.
  • Longer than you think.
  • 100 hours.
  • The time it takes to peel an orange.
  • A lifetime.

Bland compares these with the average audience time spent with an artwork reported by some gallery visitor studies:

  • 15 seconds (for the ‘Mona Lisa’ at The Louvre).
  • 32.5 seconds (Metropolitan Museum of Art , New York).
  • 17 seconds (research at Rutgers University).

While we might traditionally consider the gallery as the place for more concentrated and contemplative looking and public space/public art as a place of the ‘glance’, this research makes me think that actually these art experiences may not be so dissimilar. Do the accumulated moments of glancing and passing by or even the half an hour spent with a public sculpture over a summer sandwich count towards an incrementally deeper or extended encounter?

What the shortest or longest time you’ve spent with a work of public art? What might this add up to over the course of a lifetime?


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Photographing public artworks: signs of ‘affiliation and affection’?

Photographing 'Couple on Street', Lynn Chadwick, (1984), Canary Wharf Public Art Collection, London.

Photographing ‘Couple on Street’, Lynn Chadwick, (1984), Canary Wharf Public Art Collection, London.

This week I’ve come across two blog posts about the pros and cons of taking photographs of objects in museums. This has nudged me to put down a few notes here about my own reflections around people’s attraction to photographing public artworks beyond the confines of the museum.

From my own street observations over the years and recent scannings of the internet and social media for images of public artworks from the Newcastle-Gateshead ‘collection’ (the subject of my current PhD study) it would seem that taking a photograph of, or posing for a photograph with, public artworks is almost instinctive. With a camera, or smartphone, in your hand when you encounter a new or striking piece of public art it seems the obvious thing to do (if, that is, you are photographically inclined).

Could this stopping to take a photograph be seen as a primary signal of audience engagement with a public artwork, an object which may more typically be seen only peripherally while passing-by on the way to somewhere/something else? Could the short moment taken to do this be the longest time anyone deliberately spends ‘with’ the work? In public space it seems that photography could be a more acceptable public behaviour than other more physical forms of interaction with these objects. Although sited without barriers (and watchful gallery staff) we may not feel free to touch, or even to walk round, step back, go close to these objects, as we might be tempted or indeed expected to do when encountering artworks in a museum or gallery. In the urban public realm I’ve rarely witnessed these kinds of ‘looking at art’ behaviours outside of a formal public art tour.

‘Powerless Structures Fig. 101’, Elmgren and Dragset, The 4th Plinth, London, 2012-13

Photographing ‘Powerless Structures Fig. 101’, Elmgren and Dragset, (2012-13), The 4th Plinth, London.

So why do people take photographs of public artworks? What does it indicate about a person’s relationship to these objects? What do people do with or get from these images they have taken?

In the latest of his blog series ‘Tilting at Windmills’, Ed Rodley suggests that rather than taking photographs to document the objects they have seen, museum visitor’ photography, and the subsequent sharing of that imagery e.g. via social media, is a representation of their ‘affiliation’ with the chosen object and with the institution of the museum. For Rodley these photographic acts are ‘underutilized and under-appreciated’ by museum professionals, who are often more concerned to control visitor photography than to encourage it.

Visitor photography and its relationship to the museum experience is also the subject of Jamie Glavic’s recent post ‘Reflection vs. Collection’ on the Museum Minute blog. This is written in part response to a recent research study (by Linda Henkel) that suggests that taking photographs in the museum actually prevents rather than assists visitors in remembering the objects they have seen. As Glavic writes, Henkel has labelled this phenomenon the ‘photo-taking-impairment effect’. Interestingly though, Henkel’s study did find that when people began to explore objects with the camera further, to photograph specific details, they did retain a clearer memory of the object. Glavic notes that Henkel’s study only investigated the effects of the act of taking a photograph, not what people subsequently did with or thought about the images they had made.

Do Rodley and Glavic’s posts and Henkel’s findings reflect what happens beyond the gallery? Outside the museum, in the ’public realm’ we are generally freer to photograph the artworks we encounter than we are in the museum/art gallery, although there are sometimes similar concerns, and occasional controversies, around copyright infringement and security issues. (In my own work I have been stopped several times from taking photographs of public artworks on the Tyne and Wear Metro by its security staff, for example.) Can we take these ‘posings for photographs with public artworks’, ‘selfies’, Flickr portfolios and crowdsourced online public/‘street art’ directories as signals of ‘affiliation and affection’ with the artworks represented? Or are these images perhaps more like trophies of time and place (a more simple visual statement of ‘I was here’)?


Ed Rodley is Associate Director of Integrated Media at Peabody Essex Museum, Boston (USA). He blogs at Thinking about museums. Jamie Glavic is Strategic Projects Coordinator at Ohio Historical Society (USA).

Rodley, E. (2013) ‘Tilting at Windmills, Part Three’, Thinking about museums, 8 December. Available at: http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/tilting-at-windmills-part-three/ (Accessed: 08.01.14).

Glavic, J. (2013) ‘Reflection vs. Collection’, Museum Minute, 11 December. Available at: http://museumminute.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/reflection-vs-collection-a-new-report-looks-at-the-effect-of-picture-taking-on-remembering-the-museum-experience/ (Accessed: 08.01.14).

Henkel, L. (2013) ‘Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour’, Psychological Science, XX (X), pp. 1-7, Sage [Online]. Available at: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/12/04/0956797613504438 (Accessed: 08.01.14).

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Quality of experience of art

I’ve just been reading a new discussion paper commissioned by Arnolfini and Turning Point South West on audience experience of the arts. Researched and written by arts consultants Annabel Jackson Associates, this sets out a potential new model for understanding the “dimensions and determinants” of the quality of experience of the arts. In devising this model Jackson has drawn from her own earlier work on visual arts exhibition evaluation, but also more broadly from concepts of ‘experience quality’ within the museums, tourism and business sectors. The intention is to develop a model that can be applied across all art forms, not just the visual arts, and interestingly for my own research also for “incidental encounters with public art and street art”.

How might this model work within a public art context? Which of these characteristics or determinants might have most bearing on the experience of a public art ‘encounter’? And are there other ‘public art’-specific determinants that should be added to this? My first thoughts are that environment and context, external events and personal awareness would be heightened elements within an arts experience which is so enmeshed within everyday public life, rather than being necessarily framed as an ‘arts experience’.

Visual Arts South West have an open call out (closes end of September) for arts organisations to partner them in developing and testing this experience evaluation model, so it will be interesting to see how this work progresses, and if anyone from the public art sector takes this up.

Source: Jackson, A (2012) Quality of experience in the arts: a discussion paperAnnabel Jackson Associates Ltd. [Accessed 10.09.12]

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Audience response

It’s been really interesting (and encouraging) for me to see that the new issue of the US based journal Public Art Dialogue (Vol.2. Issue 1, 2012) is dedicated to the theme of ‘Audience Response’, one of the research areas that I am focusing on in my own work here in NewcastleGateshead. In this post, I make some initial observations on two of the articles contained here, expecting to return for a closer read of these texts and the whole issue as part of my formal ‘Public art and audience’ literature review.

Among the different perspectives gathered in this issue, Kate MacNeill’s article ‘Narratives of Public Art: Yellow Peril, Vault and a Large Yellow Object’ was a particularly informative and engaging read. Focusing on a 1980’s sculptural commission for the City of Melbourne, MacNeill combines tales of political controversy with a new ‘human-object’ centred approach (drawn from ‘material culture’ studies) to trace the 20 year agency and mutation of ‘Vault’ from unique ‘artwork’, to ‘discursive object’, to physical play-thing/functional structure and back to ‘artwork’ status again. A current state, which in MacNeill’s words seems more emptied out than celebratory: “No longer climbed upon, rarely sheltered under except perhaps on a rainy day by those making their way from the gallery to the Victorian College of the Arts, the large yellow object is acknowledged as an artwork and defined by its sheer uselessness.” (p.29). 

This object-oriented view is further explored in Quentin Stevens’ well illustrated article ‘Visitor Responses at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial: Contrary to Conventions, Expectations and Rules’. In his case study, based on extensive first hand observation of the memorial, Stevens offers an analysis of “the interpretive, emotional, and bodily aspects” (p.37) of the work’s reception. In the article he describes four key factors that shape audience experiences of this work: the architect’s original vision which deliberately intended to elicit a bodily (rather than a contemplative) audience response;  the specific physical and ‘minimalist’ (block/grid) form of the work; the publicly displayed rules for use of the site; and the size and presence of the audience itself as an observer/regulator of the site and of others’ interactions with it. Having set out his observations and analysis Steven’s concludes by suggesting that “these parameters might also prove useful for studying, predicting, and shaping the reception of public artworks generally, with emphasis differing according to the materiality, placement, and meanings of any given work, as well as the anticipated size and composition of its audience, and how their behaviour is managed.” (p.54.) An analytical structure that I may well pick up on in planning and carrying out my own observational case studies.

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