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Published January 18 2010

Gabriel: Fargoans’ art etiquette puzzling to outsiders

Since moving to Fargo last June, I’ve had the opportunities to sample a wide selection of what the area offers on its cultural and recreational menus.

Restaurants and bars. Music and theater. Sports and parks. Small specialty shops and large chain stores.

What I’ve discovered is no matter the city and no matter the attraction, it’s often the energy from the people in the “room” that makes the experience unique and memorable.


That assertion was recently tested in the Fargo arts community. And what I discovered was Fargoans (and one assumes Moorheadians, or the less common Moorheadleys) fail miserably when compared to folks who visit art galleries in other cities.

At a couple of art galleries I visited, the people I was standing among clearly had no idea how to act and speak when in the presence of what seemed to qualify as magnificent art.

They were in good moods and exhibiting traits of being rather happy people.

Some even laughed.

This goes against standard art gallery behavior. There’s no laughing in art galleries.

And it indicated to me they were not members of the much-heralded We’re Very Important Art Lovers and You’re Probably

Not Guild.

You’ve seen these folks. They love art. They live art. They talk art. They know art. And they “know” art more than you know art.

If you stroll into their immediate vicinity while in an art gallery, you may be asked to leave if you show any outward signs of joy or if you begin speaking above a whisper.

For instance, let me share with you the type of reaction I was supposed to have while standing in front of a 30-foot-wide all-black canvas hanging from the ceiling of the Modern Art room at the Art Institute of Chicago.

To see this piece one couple – almost in unison – bent their upper torsos to one side, squinted a bit, and mumbled to each other something that sounded like Marlon Brando in “The Godfather” while exhibiting nothing more than puzzled, if not troubled, looks on their faces.

They loved that piece. Yet, they frowned at it for nearly 10 minutes. I thought it was a piece of sheetrock painted black.

While trying to gain insight on the hanging black wall I forgot the most basic art gallery rule when I asked what that thing was supposed to be. It was a major mistake.

The gentleman said, “You’re not serious … are you?” In a moment of weakness and showing an embarrassing lack of focus, I laughed. This nearly sent them over the edge.

People looking constipated in front of art is their way of saying to gallery rookies, “Yes, observe and appreciate the greatness of this, but show no outward emotion beyond a hint of misery.”

All of these images ran through my mind as I recently stood in a downtown Fargo gallery. The laughter, the talking above a whisper, the eye contact with me followed by a warm greeting – who are these people?

This is not how you act in an art gallery. Here I was expecting to see the very “best” from Fargoans and Moorheadleys. Instead, I got very un-gallery-like behavior.

No pain, no suffering, no squinting, no torso-shifting. Just people enjoying themselves. I’m in a new world here in Fargo-Moorhead.

Christopher Gabriel is host of “The Christopher Gabriel Program” from 9 a.m. to noon weekdays on AM 970 WDAY. Read his blog at cgabriel.com and preview his show at www.areavoices.com/cgabriel