What is it you love about art galleries? I’ve always had a keen interest in art, particularly contemporary, and I especially enjoy complex installations and sculpture. But aside from the actual artworks, I find something therapeutic in the atmosphere of a gallery; I like the open and quiet spaces. I’ve fully utilised having a place in which to teach Oscar how to be respectful and calm, and how best to behave around other people who are also reflecting and appreciating their surroundings. It’s been a great asset to my parenting journey; to have a place that is cultural and important, and to be able to teach Oscar the value of respect.
Favourite big art gallery & why: I find it difficult to define at what point a gallery becomes a big one, but I’d probably say the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea. Although there’s something comfortingly nostalgic about the larger Tate galleries’ permanent collections, I find the staff can be particularly unwelcoming to small children. They also seem to lack any faith in parents’ ability to control their children within the galleries (I, for one, have taught Oscar about maintaining a respectful distance from artworks and “looking with his eyes”). The staff at the Saatchi are far more relaxed. I think the regular turnover of its exhibitions and the fact that it does tend to appeal to a more ‘genuine’ customer means it can assume its visitors are truly interested in the artworks and not just ticking it off the tourist ‘must-see’ list. Its ticketed exhibitions can be hit and miss, but I have to accept not everyone likes the same art as me!
Favourite indie art gallery & why: Again, I’m not sure at which point a gallery becomes ‘indie’, but I love the Newport Street Gallery. So far I can’t fault Damien Hirst’s selections for their exhibitions – he might be controversial but you can’t deny he has an amazing eye and I’ve visited every exhibition he’s hosted there since Jeff Koons in 2016, which was one of the most visually pleasing exhibitions I’ve ever seen. It taught me that art doesn’t always have to make you feel something; sometimes you can just enjoy it for the bright, enthusiastic nonsense that it is. NSG also manages to be completely child-friendly, with Damien Hirst colouring books, brightly coloured plastic cups and happy, smiling and even patient people everywhere. It’s a wonderful experience and one I really recommend.
Best gallery for kids? I’m obviously a huge fan of NSG for a visit with children, but honestly it all depends on the child. Not all children are content with being quiet and calm, and that’s ok. In those cases I find galleries like the Whitechapel Gallery and Camden Arts Centre, who cater for busy minds, a better option. They give children something to focus on and look for while wandering around. Personally I think it’s a good idea to prepare activities yourself if a gallery hasn’t catered to the entertainment of your children. Often just printouts of the artworks featured in the exhibition are fun for them to identify and tick off as they go round. Oscar has recently enjoyed making his own sketches from artworks and relishes the attention this earns him from fellow art enthusiasts.
And the worst? We recently had an uncomfortable visit to Victoria Miro thanks to staff who were constantly sprinting forward to try and stop our children from going near the art. This meant we had to hover over them, restricting their movement around the space. As anybody with children – and particularly toddlers – will know, the moment you try to stop your child from moving, they will do anything to escape and run around. It’s incredibly frustrating when galleries don’t trust that you also have the best interests of the artworks in mind. I’ve had the same experience with both of the Serpentine Galleries, which is odd considering they’re located within a park and should expect to welcome children. I do, however, appreciate that all this probably comes from a ‘once bitten’ mentality and that it’s the responsibility of all involved to ensure that children understand the importance of preserving the art.
Best ever art exhibition you’ve been to & why: I was fortunate enough to see Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors at Victoria Miro in 2016. In my opinion she’s one of the most inspirational artists in the world, having overcome her own mental health issues and succeeded in an incredibly male-dominated industry. She moved to America from Japan at a young age, having received a promising letter from her hero Georgia O’Keeffe, and worked tirelessly to achieve her goals. For me she is a feminist icon and I really admire her individuality and strength – something I felt was present in her art, especially as she uses the repetition of painting dots to manage her obsessional neurosis. Her ingenious use of colour and thought-provoking imagery never fail to impress me. I also find huge comfort in her loyalty towards certain themes and her unwavering ability to disregard the opinions of others when considering what to create next. It’s a dream of mine to visit her museum in Tokyo.
Favourite place to take Oscar that isn’t a gallery: London is incredible with its seemingly endless list of children’s activities. One of our favourites is The Idol, a soft-play sculpture in Barking. I’m particularly happy about its lack of garish colours (in direct contrast to the above) and nauseating cartoon designs. After Assemble’s Brutalist Playground at the Royal Institute of British Architects closed, we were at a loss (RIP RIBA) and I was delighted to discover somewhere that was close by, monochrome and offered coffee that was untainted by the smell of socks. A close contender is the Discover Children’s Story Centre in Stratford, which does trump The Idol with its excellent exhibitions (most recently Dr. Seuss and The Gruffalo), and entertainment, but unfortunately was recently made smaller to accommodate a buggy park, and does require you book in advance. It does have a brilliant outside space though, as well as a huge range of alternative milks in the cafe, and great travel links in and out of Stratford.
Follow Rachel at @iheartrachel