Demystifying the Gallery Experience

Galleries can communicate an imposing presence, but they are meant for all of us.

by Erin Buczynski, Bradley University
Visitors enjoying the gallery
Guests view artwork at the Gendered Perspectives reception in the Hartmann Center Gallery at Bradley University. Photo by Margaret LeJeune

As a gallery director, I sometimes take for granted the level of familiarity and comfort I have within formal gallery environments. Over the past ten years, I have spent the majority of my waking hours in the gallery setting: handling and installing artwork, giving gallery tours, and hosting gallery events. When I am not physically in a gallery space, my time is often spent advocating for artists, writing and talking about art, or creating my own artwork. 

Although being in gallery environments is second-nature to me now, I distinctly remember what it was like before I obtained this level of comfort. I recall the trepidation and unease I felt when first venturing into galleries. This is understandable—when one conjures up a vision of a traditional gallery space, it is easy to picture commanding pristine walls, display boundaries and stanchions, alarm systems and gallery staff guarding the artwork and experience. Galleries can communicate an imposing presence, and rightly so. As stewards, they are charged with the safekeeping of priceless works of art. 

The physicality of these safeguards can be intimidating enough. But for some, their perceived lack of understanding art may be enough to keep them away entirely. Art jargon and unrealistic representations of galleries in popular culture can be off-putting and enough to make anyone feel like an outsider. It is disheartening to think about how many people shy away from the great magic of galleries because of these misconceptions. 

Visitors enjoying the gallery
Guests at a reception for SACRED by Hattie Lee at Prairie Center of the Arts

Galleries for All
In reality, galleries are meant for all of us. They are places for pause and consideration, places meant to take in visual information at your own pace, to be profoundly moved, to view artwork that can elicit a reaction, and to be challenged. This is especially true here in Peoria, where the vast majority of galleries are free, open to the public and less intimidating than the for-profit sales galleries that can be found in larger cities. Additionally, most of these gallery programs have organizational missions and goals of providing exceptional cultural content for all residents of our city and region. 

When planning the gallery event calendar, I often wonder if I am doing enough to be inclusive. Am I doing my part to make sure I am helping to reach newcomers? How do I reach those who have not yet ventured into a gallery setting? It has been really interesting to watch some of our local arts organizations address these questions head-on. Instead of waiting for the public to come to them, they have taken the initiative and gone directly into the community to create art events in the everyday environment. 

Programs like Sculpture Walk Peoria, Big Picture and Sky Art (formerly ArtPop Peoria)—along with the many local artists who have created murals and site-specific installation artworks throughout our community—are not waiting for people to come to them. Instead, they have turned our streets into a gallery. It does not matter what preconceived notion someone might have about how to experience art; they are confronted and exposed to professional artwork in their own environment, while venturing their own path. Through these endeavors, people from all walks of life, of all ages, can experience art in their everyday world. 

An Easy Introduction
So what are some easy ways to begin your introduction to the Peoria gallery scene if you have not checked it out yet? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Visit the ArtsPartners of Central Illinois event calendar to find out what is happening throughout the community. 
  • Try going to a reception event. You don’t have to stay long; part of the beauty of an art reception is you can spend as much or as little time as you like. Some venues, like the Contemporary Art Center of Peoria or the Peoria Art Guild, will even have live music onsite, giving you the chance to take in music and art all at once. 
  • Check out First Friday events presented by CIAO (Central Illinois Artists Organization). It is an easy way to visit a large and diverse group of venues in a single night. 
  • Visit a local retail gallery space. Studios on Sheridan and Exhibit A Gallery both have shopping opportunities alongside gallery presentations. It is a wonderful way to shop local and support local artists. 
  • Make an effort to read the gallery signage and statements. The content provided will inform your interpretation of the artwork and should enhance your experience. 
  • Talk with the gallery’s director, curator or staff. All of these people are there to help you learn more about the artwork, the artist and the gallery programming. I promise that your experience will be much more fulfilling in doing so. 
  • Go back and visit the gallery again after the reception. Give yourself that quiet time and space to experience the art in a different way.

Taking the time to visit galleries not only supports local artists and arts organizations—it is also an important investment in yourself, your personal growth and your wellbeing. PM

Erin Buczynski is Director of Galleries, Exhibitions and Collections at Bradley University.

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