Looking Closely to Engage with Art

This March, the RK&A staff gathered in DC for a company retreat—an opportunity for all of us to be together in one place and to mix a little bit of business and pleasure as we reflected on the past year and planned for the future.  One of my favorite parts of the retreat was our trip to the National Gallery of Art for a drawing salon in the Calder Tower.  I was originally a little apprehensive about participating in an art activity with my colleagues because I’ve never considered myself artistically inclined.  I worried about how my drawings would look in comparison to others’ (even though I know how supportive we all are of one another, and that, really, it’s just supposed to be a fun activity to do together).

We sat down with our stools in front of Calder’s Eucalyptus, a large, black mobile that swayed and revolved as we watched it, seeming to have a mind of its own.  We started by looking closely at the artwork, talking about what it brought to mind, how it moved, and how that movement changed the shapes we were seeing.  I was relieved to find out that our first drawing activity was to look at the mobile and trace its shapes for three minutes…without looking at our papers or lifting our pencils.  Whew! The goal was just to focus on the silhouettes and lines created by the mobile and to connect those perceptions to paper.  No masterpieces necessary.  We did this exercise three times, and after the first round of drawing, I knew what ended up on the paper would only loosely represent the reality of the artwork.  I chose to focus on a different section of the mobile each time, challenging myself to try to capture the smallest details in the shapes I saw and paying attention to the changing shapes as the mobile revolved with the movement of the air in the gallery.

This experience allowed me to practice close-looking, a skill we often seek to evaluate in museum visitors for our projects, and to begin to think about this skill in a new way.  My training in anthropology and archaeology has honed my attention to detail and my ability to look closely at an artifact to “read” it for clues about its background.  I don’t consider myself an “art person,” but close-looking provided an entry point to feeling more comfortable engaging with art because I could transfer a familiar skill to a new setting.  This made me think about how each visitor finds their own entry points to engage in their museum experience.  Predicting the connections each visitor will make is difficult or impossible, which is one reason open-ended interview questions are such a useful tool for data collection.  A well-crafted interview question is clear in intent, but allows the interviewee the freedom to express their thoughts and opinions in their own words.  This can help us as evaluators to understand visitors on their own terms and often reveals connections we never expected.  Those unexcepted responses are always one of my favorite parts of interviewing visitors and analyzing data!


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