Exhibition Opening Etiquette

Let’s admit it, some of us are pretty sloppy when it comes to conducting ourselves at exhibition openings. Whether you’re new to the art world, or an old hand who’s gotten a little lazy, there’s no time like Spring to brush up on some exhibition opening etiquette:

Proximity to Artwork

As soon as you step over the threshold of an exhibition space you really need to have your wits about you. One reason many people feel anxious about visiting galleries is because they are deathly afraid of treading on something, knocking something over or any number of other faux pas. And so they should be, but being aware of the potential for these things to happen is half the battle, and you can avoid most accidents by observing the following golden gallery rules:

a) Never walk backwards. If you want to take a step back from a work of art to get a better view, turn around and watch where you’re headed.

b) Never lean on walls. It’s all too familiar – the opening speech starts, the audience gets bored, and someone leans right onto the middle of a still-wet painting.

c) Leave backpacks and big bags at home, or stashed well out of the way. There’s a good reason why surly security guards in all the major galleries make you cloak your stuff.

d) Bear in mind that that nice big sculpture might not be okay for your small child, lap dog, pet ferret or doddery grandmother to climb all over. Keep a watchful eye on your dependents.

In my experience, small children aren’t the only ones who need to be told ‘look with your eyes and not your hands’.


Just because there are free drinks at an opening does not mean they need to be consumed with wild abandon. Yes, you heard me right. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a relaxing drink, but just know thyself. If you are a two-pot screamer then one pot should suffice. Exercise particular caution if you aspire to one day exhibit or work in the host gallery. When you get overly merry at an opening the potential risks are many and varied. Apart from the obvious possibility of damaging artwork (or yourself), bear in mind that there is nothing fouler than those people at openings who stumble around with teeth grey from red wine, slurring and hiccuping in the face of strangers.

Particularly amazing to me is the sheer number of people who put their drinks down on either

a) plinths

b) av equipment (such as on top of a data projector)


c) the artwork itself

Don’t do this.

Extra politeness points for returning your empty glass to the drinks table for collection, rather than stashing it under a chair, behind a door, or in a bush.

The Cheese Platter

Around the cheese platter is the place you’ll find the most shockingly bad manners at an exhibition opening. One notable gallery in Canberra even had to employ ‘cheese police’, who would organise the crowd into a line and then dole out crackers to them like a depression-era soup kitchen.

We’ve all seen it: folks crowd around like vultures over a carcass, grabbing and fighting for best position and stuffing their faces with wedges of cheese as large as can be managed. Yes, cheese and crackers can be delicious, and yes, it’s free, but before joining the vultures ask yourself: am I really that hungry? Am I really this desperate for a piece of cheese? Wouldn’t it be better to pop into the store on the way home and buy a wedge of brie and box of crackers all for yourself, to be enjoyed while lounging around reading a good book? Yes, it would.

Mouthing Off

An exhibition opening is more often than not a crowded space filled with people speaking at the loudest possible volume. Speaking loudly isn’t a problem, so much as who or what you’re potentially speaking about. The art world is one in which you never know who someone might be. That unkempt man who looks like he stumbled in off the street might turn out to be a visiting dignitary (I made this mistake myself). The person who you turn to to say ‘horrible show, isn’t it’ will probably turn out to be the artist. Always give people the benefit of the doubt, and if you can’t say anything nice, then an opening is probably time to shut your trap and not say anything at all.

And lastly – know when to leave. Having successfully navigated the evening without offending anyone or breaking anything tis’ far better to make an early, tasteful exit than to be scraped off the floor by disdainful staff at quarter to midnight.



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