Opening up (new) galleries

The public opening of the Hepworth Wakefield last weekendThere’s been a rash of new art gallery openings this spring, first with Turner Contemporary then followed by The Hepworth Wakefield last weekend. Both galleries are hugely impressive in many ways – not least in terms of their ambition to show the best and most challenging art coupled with a genuine commitment to engage with their local communities. Both are off to a highly successful start and I look forward to seeing how they develop over the coming months and years.

But whilst the champagne was cracked open on Friday night, in many ways the Hepworth Wakefield felt like it had been open for some time: at least if you’d been following the director Simon Wallis on Twitter. Simon (who tweets as @HepworthGallery) has shared the preparations for the creation of the new gallery via Twitter. From meetings with collectors and potential patrons, to discussions with the architects and artists we’ve been allowed a series of rare insights into the life of a gallery. We also were updated as works arrived on site for installation, press events and during the launch weekend.

These might sound like relatively small relevations in themselves but this opening up of the gallery’s life through sharing the day-to-day events brings offers insights into how the institution works. Other organisations have used blogs in similar ways – as an opera novice I found the backstage blogs from Opera North both informative and accessible. In the UK we’re starting to see a few institutional blogs by curators (Tate for example has recently introduced them, including for its Gaugin exhibition) but on the whole our art museums and contemporary galleries are still largely anonymous and closed. Looking at gallery and art museum websites rarely reveals who works for the institution, how to contact them, what they do or why they do it.

Among his UK gallery Director peers Simon Wallis is unusual in tweeting about his day job. More often if there’s someone tweeting on behalf of the gallery it’s someone in the marketing team and there’s nothing wrong with that – the more voices the better in some ways. But it’s valuable to have senior, and curatorial, staff sharing their experiences not just marketing staff.

I’d like to see more galleries and museums opened up what they do, who does it and how so that our publics (and peers) can understand them better. Technology offers so really simple ways to do that – but there are plenty of low-tech ways too such as talks and tours. I understand that all staff at Turner Contemporary will be offering public tours, for example. What a great way to find out more about what a technician does, or a fundraiser or the Director.

Of course, being more open (or transparent) about what we do, how and why should also ensure we are accountable – but above all I advocate openness because I believe it improves understanding of our institutions.

Do you think openness encourages understanding of arts institutions? What have you found to be useful ways to open up your institution?

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