Written by Kelsey Ferreira
By the time the painting was on its way back to its home at the Cleveland Museum of Art earlier this spring, El Greco’s Holy Family with Saint Mary Magdalene and I had spent 320 hours and four months together. As an on the-floor-interpretation assistant for the Portland Art Museum’s Education Department, I was in the gallery with the painting four days a week, interacting with visitors, experimenting with interpretive strategies, and reflecting on this 400-year-old painting. This experience gave me room to experiment with visitor engagement on the gallery floor, changed how I approach the act of looking, and influenced my teaching outside the museum.
El Greco’s Holy Family with Saint Mary Magdalene came to the Portland Art Museum as a part of the Masterworks: Portland Series. Though I had seen previous works in this series as a museum visitor, I wanted to learn more about how the single painting exhibition model fit into PAM’s approach to visitor engagement. I refreshed myself on the mission of the Portland Art Museum, and of the impetus behind the Masterworks series in particular. A critical facet of the Museum’s mission is “to facilitate dialogue with diverse audiences.” What does this mean, I asked myself? And how does this series, which has brought individual works by Raphael, Titian, Thomas Moran, and Francis Bacon to Portland audiences, achieve this goal? I considered my own role as an educator on the floor with a single artwork and how I might facilitate conversation, without imposing on each viewer’s unique experience. One immediate challenge I faced was learning how to open up the quiet, contemplative space of the special exhibition gallery.
The rectangular gallery was hung with velvety grey curtains on all sides, with El Greco’s painting, spotlit, on the middle wall. Didactics and sponsor information hung apart from the painting on the remaining walls. The focus on a single artwork seemed perfectly designed to encourage the kind of slow looking we like to see in a gallery, assuming this close, prolonged looking results in a deeper understanding and a more meaningful experience between viewer and artwork. Here’s what I have in my notes (unedited) from my first day in the gallery with El Greco:
- Where are these curtains from?
- What do the wall texts say? What questions to they raise/answer?
- Why is it so dark in here? And quiet!
While certainly not earth shattering, these initial field notes illustrate a potential tension between the goals exhibition design and those of education. The space was so quiet and almost altar-like that visitors would immediately halt their conversations, or speak in low whispers as soon as they entered. I became fixated on how to overcome the elements of the gallery– the layout, the lighting, and the decor – that seemed the antithesis of my job, which was to enliven the space through conversations about art. I struggled with how to approach visitors who, as soon as they entered the gallery, became hushed, or exited the space quickly, as if intruding. Was it okay to interrupt someone who seemed lost in thought, staring at the painting? Did I dare ask what two giggling teens found so funny about the Holy Family?
The answer was yes; I just had to locate the confidence in myself that approaching a visitor about her experience in the gallery was not an interruption, but an opening to access the work of art. I learned to use the look and feel of the space to introduce conversations with visitors about how museum design impacts how, and what, we see. I also learned that people can and will say no if they don’t want to be interrupted! I was inspired by this post by Rebecca Herz on visitor engagement and developed gallery activities that would guide viewers back to the work.
SERIOUSLY SLOW LOOKING
Whether you’re a museum educator or teach in the classroom (or do both), you’ve probably engaged in some slow looking exercises with a group. In the classroom I regularly require my art history students to study a single artwork for an hour before writing anything down, but I couldn’t remember the last time I stopped and looked for that long. Being in the gallery with the El Greco gave me the chance to challenge myself to the act of looking deeply.
What turned out to be most remarkable about this challenge was that I didn’t have to go at it alone; being on the floor with visitors meant that I could look at the painting over and over again through many different lenses, and with a variety of different viewers and viewpoints. Many people came into the gallery and went straight for the painting, ignoring the wall text and just delving into their own interpretation. For these visitors, I became more of sounding board for their thoughts on El Greco’s unusually long forms, strong contrasts, and dynamic sky. They’d ask me questions about the piece, but were largely content to draw their own conclusions.
Others would soak up all the information they could before turning to the painting. This included wall texts and conversations about the painting, accessible in the gallery through an app called STQRY. My presence in the gallery began to feel more and more organic, and I had repeat visitors who would come back to chat about the piece, or to share thoughts they’d had while contemplating the work on their own, outside of the museum.
The most rewarding part of this experience was my regular and direct contact with museum visitors. These interactions provided the basis for my interpretation of the painting, influenced the design of my in-gallery activities, and offered direct evidence that my work was having a meaningful impact on visitors’ experiences at the Portland Art Museum.
I shared an emotional moment with one man, Ed, a retired graphic designer who had studied painting in New York in the 1950s. He and I talked not only about the remarkable way El Greco composed his image, but also about Ed’s own struggles as a painter, relating them to El Greco’s desire for patronage, for someone to appreciate, understand, and ultimately fund his work. These are things working artists can relate to, Ed told me, when he revealed that he’d given up painting in his 30s in order to earn a living as a designer.
Betty, age 87, approached me in the gallery to share that she had first seen El Greco’s Holy Family in Cleveland when she was 18. She explained to me the impact the work had on her, even after all these years. We bonded over the tired, but so human-looking Mary, and Betty told me that over the course of her life – ending a marriage, raising three kids, struggling and finally succeeding professionally – this painting, particularly Mary, had stayed with her.
I think an interpretive guide with the painting gave people permission to talk about what they were seeing, feeling and experiencing as a result of looking at work of art. I believe these conversations shifted visitors’ expectations of a museum experience, and they certainly changed my approach to looking at and teaching about art.
BACK TO THE SURFACE
Spending so much time with one work forced me to really study and appreciate all the work El Greco was making paint do. In the gallery, I had the opportunity to talk with many people, including painters, sculptors, and writers about what they saw when they looked at the surface of the painting. We’d notice those trademark El Greco highlights, but also bits of underpainting, a rawness that pointed to process; in these discoveries the mechanics of painting became accessible and the 400 year old surface was fresh again.
These interactions inspired me to create more opportunities for creative writing and art-making in my art history classroom. Chatting with a sculptor in the El Greco gallery about form and movement, led me to experiment with an in-class activity where my students recreated 2D works in 3D with found materials. This activity initiated self-directed discussions among small groups of students about form, process and material, and allowed us to return to the work invigorated. Ultimately, I learned that facilitating visitor engagement can be as low tech as having a conversation.
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About the Author
KELSEY FERRERIA teaches Art History, Architecture, and Design at Portland Community College. She also works with the Portland Art Museum as an Interpretation Assistant where she’s developed mobile and in-gallery learning experiences for the Museum’s special exhibitions. Both in the classroom and in the gallery, Kelsey loves experimenting with different learning strategies, and aims to facilitate meaningful experiences with works of art. She holds a BA in Art History from Willamette University and an MA in Art History from the University of Oregon.