A how-to guide for beating “gallery rage”

By Cressida Smart

A friend’s recent Facebook status read as follows: “…is sharpening elbows and getting ready for the scrum to see Leonardo da Vinci tomorrow”. Echoing the thoughts of art critic William Feaver, who coined the term “gallery rage”, this recent problem risks ruining blockbuster exhibitions and discouraging visitors. However, with the epic Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in London, the National Gallery of Art has taken note and introduced changes to combat this ever-growing dilemma.

“Gallery rage” has been described as the anger that wells up in visitors when they can’t see the paintings for the gawping crowds, even after paying an extortionate price for a ticket.  Throughout and following the Tate Modern’s Gauguin : Maker of Mythexhibition in January, too many people complained about the difficulty in viewing these rare works. The crowding in front of the paintings on display was so bad, according to angry art fans and critics, that they vowed never to go to such a big show again. As a result, a fraught debate ensued in the art world over the need for different forms of crowd control for Britain’s major art shows.

Earlier this month, The National Gallery in London opened Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan. Featuring the finest paintings and drawings by Leonardo and his followers, the exhibition examines Leonardo’s pursuit for perfection in his representation of the human form.  Works on display include La Belle Ferronière (Musée du Louvre, Paris), the Madonna Litta (Hermitage, Saint Petersburg) and Saint Jerome (Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome).  It also includes the two versions of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks – belonging to the National Gallery and the Louvre – shown together for the first time. The final part of the exhibition features a near-contemporary, full-scale copy of Leonardo’s famous Last Supper, on loan from the Royal Academy. Regardless of your knowledge of Leonardo da Vinci, you cannot fail to comprehend the significance of this exhibition and revel in its splendour.

Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery, has quite rightly anticipated enormous attendance numbers for the exhibition. Consequently, the museum has limited the number of tickets to 180 per timed half-hour slot, a quarter fewer visitors than that which the capacity allows, bearing in mind that health and safety rules permit for a maximum 230 entrants every 30 minutes. Whilst this naturally reduces numbers, it also means less revenue, approximately £10,000 per day. This is the price the National Gallery is paying for “gallery rage” as curators want visitors to have a better experience and have the opportunity to contemplate this once in a lifetime exhibition.

A good idea in theory, but only a partial solution. It makes sense to limit the number of people in the exhibit, but as a result the hours need to be extended. For this show, the National Gallery is going some way towards this idea by introducing opening hours of 10 am to 6 pm daily and till 7 pm on Sundays, and 10 pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Advanced tickets are also available to avoid long queues.

For the pro-active visitor, here are a handful of tips to avoid gallery rage, from the sensible:

  • Go at odd hours. Try and visit first thing in the morning or last thing at night (blockbuster shows sometimes stay open until 9 or 10pm in order to accommodate everyone). Even if it’s still crowded, it will be less fraught.
  • Approach the exhibit non-sequentially. Visitors tend to bunch up at the first few works of art, driven by a sense that they have to see everything in order. Jump ahead to less crowded works or even follow the whole route backwards.
  • Skip the audio tour. The oh-so-helpful voice in your headphones will only tell you to go where everyone else on the audio tour is going. This invariably leads to traffic problems around paintings about which the audio guide has something to say.

To the ridiculous:

  • Wear a high-visibility vest. It makes you look official; people will be afraid to jostle you.
  • Take advantage of adverse conditions. Even over-subscribed exhibitions become suddenly accessible during freak snowstorms, transport strikes and violent protests. Watch the news, pick your moment and bring extra water in case you get beaten up or kettled on the way home.
  • Stay home and watch TV – someone has to. Don’t worry about being a philistine; just be thankful you live in a country where museum overcrowding is an actual problem.

In 2012, the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York open Picasso Black and Whiteand de Kooning: A Retrospective, respectively, and the Tate Modern in London brings us Damien Hirst.  One can only hope that the museums that bring together such blockbusters will take their lead from the National Gallery and adapt their policies to accommodate the increased influx of visitors they should quite rightly expect.

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