Museum Anxiety: If you use Instagram, you can visit a Museum

If you’re like me and from a place that doesn’t prioritize regularly visiting museums, you may have what I’ve dubbed ‘museum anxiety.’ For example, you may avoid galleries and museums because you’re concerned that you won’t understand the works presented to you. Museum anxiety is super common, and you’re not alone! However, I’m here to tell you that if you use Instagram you’re ready to visit a museum.


Seriously, looking at art in a museum is not all that different from visiting a museum.


On Instagram, we know how to tell if a post is sponsored or staged. We can see if the person in the post is wearing makeup. If there is something that we can’t decipher in the image, we know to turn to the post’s text for more information. We can use context clues to infer things that may not be explicitly stated. We even know to click on the poster’s bio for further information on the author.


Now, you’re probably thinking, how does this apply to visiting museums?


Great question. Let’s break it down.


Perhaps, you’re on vacation in Florence and you’ve mustered the courage to visit the Uffizi Gallery and you stumble upon the Birth of Venus.


Your first glance tells you that you’re looking at a nude woman standing in a floating shell. She is surrounded by three of her friends. The scene appears to be taking place at the water’s edge. Looking at the image this way is no different than scrolling through your Instagram feed.
Now, you’ll move on to the description written by the museum that’s displayed on the wall. If this was Instagram, Sandro Botticelli (the painter) would post this to further explain his image. Here, he tells you what the painting is about.


It also lists the patrons of the work. Unlike Instagram, artists don’t have to #sponsored. Instead, they often include small details that reference the artist. Here, the orange trees in the mid-ground of the painting reference the patrons––the Medici family. On Instagram, sometimes it’s hard to tell if posts are sponsored or not. That’s why many influencers use tags such as #sponsored or #ad. It is typical of artists to include imagery noting who was a patron of their patron, like the orange trees that were representative of the Medici. This isn’t a requirement though! So it’s important to read the description to note who commissioned the work. Understanding who commissioned a work is important to understanding the narrative of the work. Oftentimes, patrons wish for specific imagery to be included in the work based on their religious, social, or cultural practices.


Now that you’ve read the description of the work you’re now able to look back at the image and have some new clarity that you may not have had before.


After you’ve finished looking at the image you can either search or explore, just like Instagram.


If you really liked the Botticelli painting, consult your guidebook or ask a museum worker to see if the institution houses any more works by the same artist. This is called searching. Just like on Instagram, if you know what you want to find, you can search for it specifically. You can also search for images that showcase a similar narrative. In the case of the Birth of Venus you could look for other Renaissance works that include images from Greek myths (there are a lot!).


If you liked the general idea of the work, but not it specifically it is time to explore. Start with the room of the gallery that you’re in. Walk around and see if anything else catches your eye. If not, that’s okay! Head to another room and see what you find there. This is just like Instagram’s explore page, minus a complicated algorithm. Museums arrange their collections with similar objects near each other. So if you’re interested in one painting, you could like the one next to it.


I hope that this cured your museum anxiety, and now you’re ready to visit your next museum.

Museum Accessibility

When traveling throughout the United Kingdom during my study abroad, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to visit museums for free. In fact, while studying in London, I went to the Tate Modern at least once a week—at no cost! Even in my home state of Missouri, the major museums in both Kansas City and St. Louis are free.


After moving to Toronto, I quickly learned that this is not always the case.


In Toronto, tickets to see the Royal Ontario Museum start at $18 for students, and tickets for the Gardiner Museum cost $9 for students. The Art Gallery of Ontario is free for those under 25, but costs $25 for those 26 and older. I firmly believe that fees such as these make the museum space even more inaccessible for the general public.


In my museums and galleries course, we’ve been discussing the many roles of the museum in society. We know that museums fill a variety of roles in our culture––including existing as a community gathering space. However, we know that museums are more than community spaces with objects. Museums educate on culture and history that could otherwise be inaccessible. They also preserve materials and study the objects in their collections.


The word ‘museum’ itself has many connotations, many of which are negative. Often, museums are considered to be an elite space that only certain groups of people visit. Groups who typically feel welcome in museums are usually well educated and hold a considerable amount of privilege in society. For these individuals, cost is not usually a major hindrance for visiting the museum. But for many others, $9 is too expensive for an afternoon viewing ceramics. Admission fees further elevate the status of the museum and in turn away the general public that they are trying to attract.


All being said and done, this is a tricky situation for museums to tackle. Museums have higher operating costs than ever before. Restoration, storage, and traveling exhibitions all cost money. These rising costs are then passed onto the visitor. Clearly, maintaining their collection and having new exhibits is important for any museum. Without preservation and new ideas museums will soon lose their title as a community gathering space.


As with public libraries and schools, museums are institutions that provide a service to the community. And that service is primarily education. Both schools and libraries receive enough taxpayer funding to fulfill their mission to educate the populous. Why are museums any different?
Perhaps it is not lack of desire to make Toronto’s museums accessible to all, but rather lack of funds. Museums in Ontario do not receive enough federal funding to grow and sustain themselves long term. Allocation of federal and provincial resources is a complicated matter and not solved by this simple blog post such as this.


However, this is an important time to remember the cultural importance of museums. If the cost barrier associated with many museums is removed, visitors will be able to have a better understanding of the collective history of Canada. Understanding the cultures of not just ourselves, but our neighbors is vital.

Nuit Blanche, Let’s Talk

I attended my first Nuit Blanche this past week!


Now, before delving into my takes on the event, let’s do a short description of Nuit Blanche for our friends out there who may not be familiar with the event. The literal translation of nuit blanche means ‘white night.’ But I think that it’s a little more accurate to think of it as a sleepless night. Basically, starting at 7PM, there are numerous art installations put up throughout the city that can be visited. These installations are up for twelve full hours, ending at 7AM the next day. Some installations are put up in traditional art venues, like museums. Others are installed in cultural centers, like Younge-Dundas Square. These installations are accessible, free of charge to anyone.


I live in Toronto’s downtown core, so I was within walking distance of a bunch of the installations. I was feeling a little under the weather, so I limited my touring to five works that were all within a few kilometers of my apartment. Having never been to a Nuit Blanche, I wasn’t sure what to expect. So, I left my apartment with nothing more than my camera and wallet and hoping for the best.


I hit the streets and quickly realized how many Torontonians were out. Now, when I say the streets were full, I mean it. Brisk walking on the sidewalks was impossible and sometimes crossing the street was a struggle. Since the event is free (and super interesting) it makes sense that so many people came out to see it.


While it was crowded and a bit overwhelming, it was lovely to see so many people out and about for the sole purpose of viewing art. Now, some may disagree with me citing that oftentimes Nuit Blanche ends in a big party. However, my rationale is that people are out with the premise that they will at least engage with some art. In my opinion, engagement with some art, even under the guise of alcohol, is better than no art.


Now, onto the art itself! All of the art was contemporary in nature and much of it focused around multimedia projects. The first work I viewed, space time, was a video production. Chasing Red incorporated sounds and lights with choreographed performative dance. It’s wildly common for contemporary artists to use multimedia to varying degrees in any installation, so I wasn’t surprised to see this incorporated into many installations.


However, I was intrigued by the number of performative pieces that I saw. My academic research loosely revolves around performance art, and these types of work often don’t leave a tangible presence as with a painting or photograph. Thus, sourcing and documentation can be troublesome. The content of performance pieces at Nuit Blanche wasn’t relevant to my research, but seeing people in real life perform their art helped me understand performative pieces within my own work. Plus, it’s always interesting to see art that only happens once!


My first Nuit Blanche won’t soon be forgotten! I’m already excited to see what new creations will turn up next year.

Climate and Art

Protesters and activists around the world took to the streets on September 27, 2019, demanding political action on climate change. In Toronto alone, tens of thousands of people took to the streets demanding real change. In Montréal, sixteen-year-old activist, Greta Thunberg led a rally of half a million. This comes days after Thunberg’s voyage across the Atlantic Ocean where she embarked on a year-long journey of eco-activism. Her first stop was in New York City where she spoke at the United Nations Climate Action Summit.


Environmental preservation is a hot topic at the moment, in part due to Thunberg’s activism. Around the globe activists like Thunberg are challenging their governments to do better and be better for the future of our planet.


Now, this leads me to question what role do artists play in the discussion of climate change?


Historically a lot!


Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) was a German artist who focused his art around the preservation of the land. Beuys coined the term “social sculpture” in an attempt to define his art. Social sculpture was a broad term that defined as intentional acts using a mixture of language, actions, thoughts, and objects to create societal change. To Beuys, this was art. Beuys believed that social sculpture could create revolutionary change in society.


In practice, Beuys planted 7000 oak trees in conjunction with documenta 7. The work, 7000 Oaks: City Forestation Instead of City Administration, attempted to counter the urbanization of Kassel, Germany. This project revitalized the landscape and improved the ecosystems surrounding the city
However, the rejuvenation of Kassel was not Beuys’ only message with 7000 Oaks. The artist felt as if oak trees themselves were symbolic. The trees were not only a reminder of the Druid civilization but also of the dependence of contemporary society on the environment. Beuys wished for the trees to serve as a reminder for the ways that we depend on nature to maintain our lifestyles. Moreover, Beuys hoped his oaks could be used for further education on political activism.


With the rise in activism surrounding climate change it is becoming more common for artists to get recognition for their works that feature the land as a medium. It’s also interesting to see the rise in the interest of the public on these types of works.


I’m not suggesting that viewers are now more interested in ecological works of art now due to the political discourse surrounding climate change, but it does make for an interesting argument. An argument that I will not explore in this brief post, however.


Instead, I wish to explore the more recent work of Andy Goldsworthy (1956-). In 2019, Goldsworthy began his project, Walking Wall, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. This work explores ideas of impermanence and time. Over a year, the work is installed in five stages. Every few months the wall moves to a new location on the museum’s property to ‘walk’ around the area. Lucky for me, when not in Toronto, I spend a decent amount of time in Kansas City. And I have been able to see the Walking Wall at all of its stages so far.


Simply put, the wall is comprised of one hundred yards of stone that are repositioned each time the wall is moved. The wall meanders throughout the outdoor and indoor spaces of the museum to its eventual resting point. The Walking Wall will arrive at its final position near the end of November where it will be a permanent installation at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

Having a work so intrinsically connected to the land at a museum so close to home is a very exciting prospect for me, and other art lovers and eco-activists in the region.

Goldworthy’s art isn’t connected to eco-activism in the same way that Beuys 7000 Oaks work was, but it still leaves a message noting the importance of the land to both artists and us as citizens. So many other artists are (and have been) tying their work to the environment. So many avenues of exploration exist in this field of art historical study and I can’t wait to see how other scholars approach this topic.

One Month of Graduate School Complete, 23 Left

This first month living in Canada and attending a new university has been a whirlwind. Living in downtown Toronto is incredible. I’m a proper country girl (I grew up in a farm town with about 4000 people in total) and moving to a big city is an adjustment, to say the least. People are roaming my neighborhood at all times of day (and night). Hundreds of people are buying groceries at the same time as me. I’m never actually alone! For me, this has been sort of overwhelming, but in a positive way. Every day I’m experiencing everything the world has to offer and I’m so thankful even if it’s hard to handle sometimes. 


Which also means I’m in proximity to some impressive museums and galleries. These past few weeks have allowed me to explore museums in three unique ways.


First, as a tourist––the most traditional way of viewing museums. I live in walking proximity to many museums and I take advantage of this on my days off of class! Many museums are free or low cost, which is terrific for students like me.


Second, one of my classmates is a curator at a gallery near Toronto’s harbourfront. She recently finished curating an exhibition about declassified CIA materials in South America. Several of my other classmates and I toured her exhibit when it opened.


Third, part of the coursework for one of my courses is to visit with employees of Ontario museums. Our class time is structured so that we visit a new museum or collection each week. We’re meeting with curators and directors of Canadian collections


This first month has been full of many transitions and truly difficult moments, but overall I am thankful that I chose this journey.

Hello and Welcome

It’s hard to believe that only a few short months ago I finished my bachelor’s degree in art history from Truman State University. The last few months of my degree was a total whirlwind! I completed a thesis project and presented at our annual Student Research Conference. My project centered around the changing reception of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s barrel art due to the introduction of Instagram.

Throughout the academic year, I worked with several interdisciplinary mentors in order to draft my undergraduate thesis, Not Just a Bath Toy: The Reception of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Barrel Art Since 1963. The process of writing my thesis challenged me as a student and allowed me to evolve and mature as a writer and researcher––opportunities for which I am thankful.

During the year of writing (and editing, and rewriting, and editing again), I discovered that my main passions in the field are performance and environmental art. Projects like Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s London Mastaba excite me so much that I couldn’t imagine ending my studies now. This is why I decided to attend graduate school in Toronto for a Master’s in the History of Art program. While in Toronto I hope to continue to grow as an art historian and continue to pursue my interests in the field.

I hope that this blog will be a space for me to explore topics outside of the classroom. I also hope to blog about the new-to-me art scene in Toronto, and my life as a graduate student.