Cassie Oswood, Philadelphia Museum of Art

You, Too, Can Be an Art Aficionado

With Arcadia located only 30 minutes from Center City Philadelphia, students have access to a vast list of cultural opportunities. One of these opportunities is going to that really big building with the really big pillars and all those steps out front. The ones most of you probably know from watching Rocky triumphantly run up them. The building is better known as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where I visited recently.

As I watched people milling around, admiring the art, taking selfies with the art, misunderstanding the art, and boasting their vast knowledge about the art, the idea struck me that someone should have taught them proper art-museum etiquette. With that in mind, here are 8 tips so that on your next expedition, you can look like you know what you are doing and talking about – and not stick out like an annoying art-museum newbie.

Tip #1: Don’t touch. Repeat, don’t touch.

Do not touch the art. Do not stand too close to the art. Do not lean on the art. Do not take selfies with the art. Do not point at the art with your hand, finger, rolled up pamphlet, or any other possible pointing objects. This may seem like common knowledge, but after having been reprimanded by security not once, not twice, but three times, I realized how sensitive they are to crowding the art.

Tip #2: Do not be “that guy.”

Do not be the guy who looks at a Van Gogh or a Monet and says, “Oh, I could do that.” You’re guaranteed to face simultaneous eye-rolling from every other person visiting the exhibit.

Tip #3: Put down your phone for a moment.

Put down your phone, stop taking pictures of all the art (especially selfies), stop Snapchatting the art, stop tweeting about the art. Sit for a moment and appreciate the art. One of the best qualities of a work of art is the detail. Be attentive to the details. Let yourself get lost in the use of color complements, the brush strokes, the color palette, the contrast, and the symbolism. Exist in the moment, just you and the artwork.  

Tip #4: Don’t rush!

Give yourself time to enjoy each piece. Don’t rush through an exhibit because you want to see every piece and then realize you barely looked at any of the art. The more time I spent with a piece, whether it was a painting, a sculpture, a vase, a tapestry, or a tile, the more intricate the details I saw. At first glance, a Japanese ink painting seemed to be just hills and waterfalls, but on closer examination, I could see tiny villages in valleys, men and women on bridges, even little animals in the hills.

Tip #5: Use fancy words.

When talking about the art, use fancy words like chiaroscuro, trompe d’oil, balance and contrast, triangular unity, symmetry, and emphasis. Now look up all those words and use them in appropriate conversation about a piece and you will seem like you know what you’re talking about. Hopefully.

Tip #6: Don’t be afraid to talk to the staff.

Ask them about their favorite exhibits. Odds are they can tell you about exhibits and pieces that most people miss. One employee directed me to the back of the Japanese exhibit, where I found a village complete with tea huts, calming music, and bamboo growing around a pond. I would most likely have never found the village exhibit had I not talked to the helpful employee.


Tip #7: Read the placards.

Some paintings, in fact most paintings, have symbolic meaning, references and allusions, or a fascinating history. Those little placards next to every piece with the small font that most people only glance at to see the title and artist of the painting tell the story behind the piece. Some have exciting back stories, others explain details and historical references.

Tip #8: Note the artists.

When you find a painting you particularly like, note the artist. Take a snapshot of the placard or write down the artist’s name because chances are you will like other pieces by the same person. Not only is it fun to see that the same name keeps popping up with paintings that catch your eye, but you can also learn more about the artist and find others with similar styles.