This week we're interested in how we best experience artworks, specifically in the gallery setting.

Tate Debate Banner image

Often galleries are characterised as quiet, contemplative spaces, where you may be told off for talking too loudly.

But many museum and gallery spaces are actually supreme social spaces.Great places for first dates, family outings, meeting friends and showing off!

Visitors viewing Jackson Pollock's Summertime: Number 9A at Tate Modern
Visitors viewing Jackson Pollock's Summertime: Number 9A at Tate Modern

We tend to do other cultural things in groups, we often find like-minded friends to go to a concert or the theatre with, and discuss afterwards, but there is something about the gallery or museum that creates a space between, that potentially allows you a meditative time and a social experience simultaneously.

The experiences I return to most often to recharge my art batteries tend to be the ones I had by myself –  time to sit with Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery on a wet lunchtime or seeing Charles Avery’s The Islanders. But the ones I talk about most? Probably the ones that I had a social experience with – seeing people disappear into Miroslaw Balka’s How It Is for the first time, for example. Obviously some artists set out to set up social experiences for you, and some works inherently are best seen by yourself.

Here artist Olafur Eliasson talks about how experiences of The Weather Project 2003 were both collective and singular or individual.

So, in general, do you visit galleries as a social experience, or do you go for a contemplative, meditative experience?

To set you thinking, we asked people around the organisation to talk about works they’d seen at Tate (both on display now, or long gone) that were affected by the people they were with (or not with!), and which make them want to talk about art, spark them off in new directions or want to take other people in there as soon as possible.

I always tell people to go and see the Coral Reef by Mike Nelson at Tate Britain. Sometimes I take them to its blank front door and leave them there. I don’t want to go round with them, because I’ll giggle and stare at their reactions, and spoil all of the surprises. But afterwards, we’re all in the Coral Reef Club of Unfinished Sentences. ‘But did you see the – ?’ ‘And what about the – ?’ ‘And then the – !’ I’m not sure what I’ll recommend when it’s gone, it’s like a magnet in the middle of the gallery, and like an itch inside my head.
Hannah Flynn, Great British Art Debate coordinator
My encounter with Martin Creed’s Work No.210 Half the air in a given space made me feel like an explorer. Walking into 10 feet of balloons alone felt exciting, disorientating, funny, a little claustrophobic, and thought provoking. The gallery space so well known to me became a foreign country demanding new skills for navigation. Once mastered it was a joy to lead the nervous and hesitant into the latex sea!
Mark Osterfield, Executive Director Tate St Ives
Martin Creed’s Work No.210 Half the air in a given space, at Tate St Ives
Martin Creed’s Work No.210 Half the air in a given space, at Tate St Ives

Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project 2003 prompted an unexpectedly social and yet intensely contemplative experience. Lying on the turbine hall floor to gaze into the mirror above, a group of visitors arranged their bodies (backwards!) to spell NO WAR. Suddenly my reflective self was plunged back to reality, lured by the sun.
Susan Holtham PA to Director, Audiences and Media

Mike Nelson: The Coral Reef A maze of dystopian locations: echoes of war, torture and horror. Rooms with ages furniture and old-fashioned fans. Discarded magazines. Guns. A clown mask. Would it have been the same without a terrified female companion? I visited again later with someone else, totally nonplussed by the experience. It wasn’t the same.
Rob Adamson, Technical Architect:
The novelty of walking through Wayne Hemingway’s Sculpture Remixed display never wore off for me. Seeing some of the Tate collection’s most famous sculptures in a silent disco setting was a surreal feeling, and never failed to make me smile even by myself on my most hectic days. It was also a great display to visit with friends though, who thought that art galleries were stuffy and not for them, and it was always fun to see how surprised they were by what they saw.
Carly Townsend, Marketing Assistant
Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project is the only artwork I can recall where I felt that the crowds of visitors really contributed to the work through their presence. In my mind’s eye I can’t divorce the installation from the throng of viewers on the Turbine Hall bridge, heads silhouetted against the giant ‘sun’, or the reflections in the mirrored ceiling of the shapes that people lying on the floor below formed with their bodies. The presence of a crowd seemed to be integral to the effect of that particular artwork.
Alex Pilcher, Web Designer

Tate Debate aims to open up new discussions around art, museum practice and wider culture. The topics debated are chosen and written by a range of people across the organisation.



.. visiting a gallery is a personal experience and exploring THE SELF ....


Art viewing experience is always uplifting.

Whether it is a painting, sculpture or photograph, I always look at an artwork with an empty mind in order to capture the essence of creation and the effort that the artist(s) input in the final product.

I visited the Tate various times and whether it was the crack in the turbine hall or the huge spider by Louise Bourgeois...there was always a kind of adrenaline and attraction to explore.

It is also a social experience by looking at other visitors and their reaction. Some are texting friends others are taking pictures of the work (when allowed).

Art attracts more than ever and it is a cultural meeting rather than just a social experience.


Viewing art is a personal experience never social, but its discourse is and has to be social.

Michelle Pennington

I definitely understand what you are saying here and agree that I have had that difficulty myself. It does depend however on the interest level and viewing compatibility of the person in your company. I have had very meaningful encounters with art that I never would have had alone. Seeing a work through someone else's perspective can broaden how you think about a work of art. And meaningful dialogue can mine the depths of the viewing experience in wonderful ways.

Michelle Pennington

I respectfully disagree on both counts. A work of art, by its very nature, requires viewers to fulfill its purpose. Art is a form of communication and therefore needs viewers to complete that transaction. It is not for anyone to decide whether the experience is more or less valid if it involves multiple people.

As for the blog as an appropriate place for expressing complexities about abstract questions - one can type the very same words that one speaks, no?

Kirstie Beaven

Interesting point Gareth.

I suppose I might think that *all* art could be seen as interactive - in that what you bring to any work shapes what you take away from it - but that for me is not necessarily a social interaction.

Some works (the installations mentioned above for example)are more socially activated (or relational) - they almost require you to be aware of the people around you, whether you know them or not, and enter into a relationship with them as well as the work.

I really value the opportunity to experience something "alone" as it were - to have a personal relationship with a piece of work, and then have the choice of whether to broaden that experience into a social one through discussion as you say. But I think the in-between places where you are collectively involved in something AND individually experiencing it are really exciting!

Miguel Peres do...

Is viewing art a social experience? It is indeed true that some people often use such an enviorment for "first dates, family outings, meeting friends and showing off!", but that does not mean that the fuction that is attributed to it by those individuals immediatly means that this is the intention or proper use of such an enviornment. If I would take a potato and shove it up my nose that would not make much sense, would it? If we take in considereation the philosophy of Ranciére though, we may have to think about the 'political' action that the public (and not only the artist) has. but this is too complicated for a blog discussion.


I certainly don't mind people talking in museums but for me viewing art is totally a personal experience. If I go to an exhibition with friends or family I just can't enjoy it as much, I'm too distracted trying to be sociable.

I suppose it's like watching a film, if you talk or pay attention to someone else while viewing it you don't get the full experience.

Kirstie Beaven

I wonder if it's that museums or galleries need to show more of this sort of work, or provide more spaces for interacting around works?


Do you think there are financial issues involved? It seems the bigger public galleries like Tate have led the way in hosting this kind of work. Maybe their agenda is different to more commercial galleries, and so they're more willing to give money (and space) to something which can't me bought and sold quite so easily?

Kirstie Beaven

@Miguel I think we all have come to a linguistic agreement about what "potato" is and some cultural (or culinary!) agreements about what we do with it. I'm not sure we are quite so much in agreement about what gallery spaces, or artworks for that matter, are and what they are for.

Can we truly say "this is the only purpose of art" without expecting others to have a differing point of view? Whether making, showing or viewing art IS a political act is clearly still an important part of this ongoing debate.

I'm interested that you think that a blog doesn't reach a required linguistic level for communicating about this. It's just writing, as @Michelle says. We could go as far as an article, book chapter or live discussion could surely?


Hi Kirsty, I agree that being involved with the work of art is a personal experience. I go to see art alone, not because I do not value another person's opinion, but because I want to enage with the art work myself and allow it to 'interact' with ME first before I contemplate another's opnion. Art is personal and we read into it what we already have experienced in our life and build on those experiences- or allow it to help us experience something completely different. I like abstract art where the narrative is not obvious as I find it challenges my imagination...but we are all different.

Greg Lakatos

Dear Kristie,

I'm a freelancer aesthete and curator at Hungary. Maybe I have a quite special exhibition-concept on an internationally acknowledged architect Yona Friedman's utopistic mobil-architectural vision. With the idea of realize and 'materialize' it as a social or a bit 'social psychological' experience. I'm just waiting for the right time and place put it into practical. I hope you will find it interesting and progressive. Maybe cos of it's speciality, how could a utopia become reality. That's it! Please share me your thoughts and comments!

Just do it!

1. Do not provide any written material, data, information or documentation on Yona Friedman, neither in the gallery nor anywhere else in the building. Do not present his bio, work or the history of its influence or his manifestos (or parts of that), nor his credo arising possibly from it.

2. Do not have any documentary or other audiovisual records (not on him, not by him). Do not show any pictures.

3. Do not present quotes (regardless of length) by him or anyone else. No appreciations, no reminiscences.

4. It is quite enough to indicate the following at the gallery's entrance: Yona Friedman exhibition.

5. Rise the 'floating wall' of the 'Floating city'('Ville spatiale') just a few meters from the gallery entrance using the distinctive Friedman elements all along the gallery space, piling them up to a certain height so that visitors would not be able to sense depth and distance. Do not make an entrance on the 'floating wall'. Although it will appear as a static complex at first sight, the building parts can be undone and moved in any order.

6. The inner space is not homogenous but divided by Friedmanian geometrical structures. Depending on the very part of the 'floating wall', we might enter into different spaces. Different parts of the space should not have any function. They should only differ in form and material, evoking Friedman's concept on aesthetic and concept. Differences should reflect the changes of Friedman's work and thoughts. In this case, it has a retrospective aspect.

7. Besides, the building parts must not have any practical functions - they have to be - more or less - closed units which, in that way, like the 'floating wall' cannot inform visitors about what they might find beyond the actual space unit. The (temporarily) distinct space units cannot be too big; they should evoke a certain claustrophobic feeling.

8. Closed space units do not have entrance or exit, only visitors can make space units transparent - either for themselves and for others. Building parts can be removed or changed depending on visitors' decision. The number and size of space units created by visitors depend only on their own personal decisions.

9. Since all building parts can be removed, changed or altered during the exhibition, the number of new structures is potentially endless. Pre-defined static building parts and the space units they shape - as a result of the constant interventions of the visitors - cannot act as a reference point either for shaping of space and establishing aspects or for any defined aesthetic point of view, since the exhibition itself cannot be viewed literally only through deconstructing it.

10. Do not provide visitors any pedagogical or didactical help. They cannot receive any support for their activity. They cannot be informed, written or verbal; therefore guidance is not possible either. Not even in case they do not act at all.

11. There are only two usable tools (avoiding didactic elements as possible, the least information is given the most it makes visitors tell about themselves). a. A simple paperboard sheet on the wall, next to the gallery entrance without frame, ornamentation or embellishment. Printed text cannot be placed on the board, only the following few handwritten (short) sentence can be on it: Everything is removable Everything can be brought here or taken from here Every activity is allowed b. Approx. 4 cameras should be placed on the gallery's ceiling recording everything that happens in the gallery from opening to closing hours. A screen should be hanging in front of the 'floating wall' built in advance (only in case in front has any meaning after visitors constant re-shaping). All cameras' pictures would appear on the screen simultaneously, dividing the screen into as many parts as many cameras operates at a time. Live and 'archive' pictures would run parallel, so past acts would come alive. There would be no long shots, since each camera would only record a piece of the gallery space (so the whole location should not be surveilled), and also time horizons would be slid, since live records and 'archive' pictures would appear showing different times (and thus represent various states). Cameras cannot take really sharp pictures, in order not to identify anyone on them (partly due to privacy issues) but they would mainly do so in order to avoid further observing of activities happening. Only fragmented outlines will be visible.

12. Do not have classic exhibition opening. Its date should certainly be promoted, adequate and prominent people have to be invited but the ceremony has to be skipped. Do not serve free food or drinks. Competent people belonging to the gallery cannot be present (especially me, the curator, not). Visitors cannot be given any guidance (there is no one who could do that) so people could only gain information from the cashier and the cloakroom attendant. The gallery should open half an hour prior to the promoted opening time. Sooner or later everybody would find the location and all visitors would spend the time at their own discretion.

Miguel Peres do...

Who decides what a potato is?... But it is still a potato.

As I'm sure you know Jacques Ranciére refers to making art as an actieve political action in the sense that it is taking part in society (inserting something in the social/political arena). Now if we turn that back to the spectator/viewer/observer then we have a another participant in this political process/debate.

Why not in a blog??? this way of communicating does not reach the linguistic level needed to really approach such abstract questions. It's like comparing fish and chips to a real meal. Kind regards...


Thanks Kirstie.

I like the idea of a piece being "socially activated". I saw/walked all over Ai Weiwei's sunflower seeds in the first couple of days before it was roped off. There were people wandering around with no shoes on, people scooping the seeds into piles, a mum stopping a babies putting the seeds in his mouth... It was like a day at the beach! Although to begin with I found it a bit annoying, I think the fact there were so many people about (and even my annoyed irritation with them) probably added something important. And I guess it was probably intended to be that way by Ai. Maybe more artists should think about producing work which is socially activated, or at least enriched somehow?

Kirstie Beaven

"Proper use" is a tricky thing to pin down! Who decides what the proper use is or should be?

Why is it too complicated for a blog? Take us there!


Does a work have to be an interactive installation piece for it to provide a social experience?

I think it's possible for art to be a social experience even when you're on your own. It should be a dialogue the artist has with you as they show you something about how they see the world. I guess it comes down to whether you see art as a commodity to be consumed by the viewer, or as something relational.

Having said that, I really enjoy visiting galleries with friends and talking about the work - what we like, how it makes us feel, things we notice. It kind of opens up the conversation and adds different dimensions to the experience.