Exploits of the Flaneur or confessions of a Steward


Yet another year has come to pass for another Centrepieces annual showcase exhibition at Hall Place’s main Gallery. This time the work seems even more polished and striking in content than before. With a huge private view of over a hundred milling visitors to boot and a tremendous fanfare of speeches headlined by the local Mayoress no less, the stage seems well and truly set for an ever more popular event.
But what exactly is the nature of popularity and interest in the mind of the local public or viewer. On a warm and humid Wednesday afternoon I sat alongside the visitors table acting as exhibition steward ready to greet these perspective oncoming inquisitive people. I have never acted as a Steward before but had always secretly desired to have a go at the role, on reflection of previous engaging visits to established galleries. What discussions would crop up? What viewpoints would be raised? What intentions to buy would be made?

 When thinking of exhibition visitors I am always put in mind of the innovative observations of French Writer Charles Baudelaire. For it was he that signalled the birth of the modern viewer in regard to the notion of the ‘Flaneur’. The Flaneur it was claimed was the initiator of the first type of shopper and browser as portrayed as the original street stroller of the early nineteenth century French boulevards; specifically relating to the Paris Arcades. This person was considered the forerunner of our modern city citizen of leisure, with time to spend on both perusal and potential procurement. Behaviour which I think seems very apt in regard to notion of the common visitor today.
So as stated above, my involvement here is actually one of extreme interest in the interactions of the public with the exciting artworks on show. I decided to use my time wisely and make a point of actively listening to the comments being circulated around the gallery which indeed proved to be both insightful and amusing.


Loosely speaking I noticed three very distinctive sets of visitors; couples and small groups of friends, families with children and toddlers and lone onlookers. The duration spent looking varied between either very fast viewing whereby the gallery was used almost in a short-cut through-fare manner and long drawn-out scrutinising exercises. The scrutinisers who tended to be solitary seemed very drawn to more issue based work. This was clearly the case in Dawn Tomlin’s collective installation pieces where vocal comments were replaced by contemplative looking body gestures.
Some themed works it seems will always generate a lot of interest, animals in particular appear to be popular with many. Dawn Tomlin`s series of cat prints provoked many comments. Two elderly ladies confer ‘That looks just like my Sooty’, a further couple conflict ‘You don’t need any more cat pictures’ (the speaker then physically pulls away their companion from the artwork).

“…Looks just like my Sooty!”
People also always seem to enjoy taking on the detective role. Whilst looking at Trevor Whiting’s boat on a Kentish beach’ people were debating where the picture was located. A man was sure that it was portraying Whitstable, another was sure it was Hastings.
It is interesting that Titles and text can also provide talking points, in the photograph ‘Colin’ of an eaglet by Alex Spendley a couple stand debating the possible reasons for why the eagle was given such an everyday name. With regard to Christie Cassisa’s painting ‘God is angry and she is black’ a man remarks to his wife ‘I love that title but it is too expensive for me’.

“Does he look like a Colin to you?”

Of course expense is a very large concern for many. On watching a parent explain to their son the dynamics of an art label outlining the protocol of Artists name, title and price the child immediately jumped to the notion of ‘which one’s the most expensive here’. Indeed many youngsters were captivated by the use of real coins in Barbra Cotters ‘Money Head’ a boy suggested to his Father ‘Dad if we buy this its only £80 but we’ll get a pound back in loose change!’

“its only £80 but we’ll get a pound back in loose change!”
I noticed a lot of people taking pictures with their camera phones, one gentleman asked ‘Is it O.K. to take some photos? I used to work at the national portrait gallery and the security there were rough’. ‘That’s fine’ I replied.
The communications between families were very interesting. In one instance a Mother and her Daughter were viewing  the lurid abstract ‘Scintillating’ by Barbara Cotter, the young girl turned to her mother and said ‘Can I have that one for my bedroom?’ her Mother on studying the label and possibly seeing the £170 price tag gave no reply. Then in the usual manner of a fickle youngster the girl quickly turns to Barbra’s other painting ‘Portal to Psychosis’ and retorts ‘I’ve changed my mind I want that one!’.


“Can I have that one for my bedroom? … I’ve changed my mind I want that one!”

As well as content people were also quite observant to processes too, Libby Harris’s mixed media portraits highlighting Klimt-like characteristics gained the attention of another girl who declared to her parents ‘you see real artists can use glitter too!’. Also I have noted before the continual fascination with the use of breezeblock carving, a man was pondering the towers of John Excell ‘I didn’t know you could do that with breezeblock’ he exclaimed.

“you see real artists can use glitter too!”

There was some interesting interactions between very young toddlers and their parents also, in some cases it seemed that parents were using the artwork as a kind of early learning activity.  In the artwork ‘Squirrel in the realm of the Green Goddess’ by Georgina Bowen a father points out in a storytelling fashion ‘look the fat squirrel has eaten all of the nuts’. In Christie Cassia’s ‘Twilight’ a mother exclaims ‘look she does wonderful things with the light ‘to which  the young child replies ‘Yes Mummy if you buy me some new pens I will draw it for you’. There were some wonderful moments too as two toddlers stood starring at Joan Scher’s magical landscape ‘Fantasia in Kent’. They stood and starred for at least 3 whole minutes and then uttered the words ‘Beaut-i –ful!’ and then walked away smiling.

“Beaut-i –ful”


“… if you buy me some new pens I will draw it for you”

The Sculpture seemed to provoke a lot of people wanting to touch it, I lost count the amount of times I overheard Parents telling their kids ‘not to touch’. The mixture of ceramic and salt dough pieces were plainly very tactile and alluring. One child remarked ‘Can we do some potty at home’ his mother corrects ‘it’s called pottery’. I was pleased to hear when another excited young boy announced ‘If I was rich I would have all of these in my garden!’.

“Can we do some potty at home”

Strangely there was some confusion about there being two Dawn’s in the same exhibition, a couple enquired ‘Are Dawn Tomlin and Dawn Tonkin’s the same person? No I replied there are both different people. ‘So how can you tell them apart?’ they asked. I was a bit bemused by the question but explained Dawn Tomkins has pink hair. ‘Oh yes (replied the man) I can see that reflected in her work’ whilst moving closely towards the drawing ‘Sword with Dragon’. I then went on to explain that both artists along with Christie Cassisa had individually won the new ‘Jackie Inspired Award’  for their artistic commitment within the group.


“Are Dawn Tomlin and Dawn Tonkin’s the same person?”

Barbara French seems to be an artist well known and loved by the public, her realistic style of large landscape country scenes are clearly very appealing. A man comes scurrying in to the gallery with his wife and states ‘We’re too late for Barbra French, they always sell early’. Another man sadly confirms with me ‘are you sure that it’s sold?’

It was really nice to observe all of these comments; I entered into further short discussions regarding Centrepieces via the brochures on display (which quickly ran out). People genuinely seemed to engage in the idea of Mental Health being the driving factor of the group, one enthusiastic man said he would be keen to join and left his details.

Of course the normal exhibitions review process typically involves the utilisation of an exhibition comments book. But such books often seem to prompt overly praiseworthy limited reviews especially when a steward is so closely present. It is always good therefore to hear the first hand direct vocal responses of common recipients in all exhibitions, especially when it seems we are in the process of moving forward as an arts group and so keen to work positively and dynamically within the local community.

It would seem a variety of artworks command a variety of visitors. Long may Centrepieces exhibitions and artworks continue to stimulate and enthuse the public at large.

  Written by Kim Campbell, edited by Guy Tarrant

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