15 Ways Modern Art Galleries Can Inspire Writers

Tate Modern, London

Tate Modern, London

I love modern art galleries and go to them whenever I am in a large city. I find they spark creative ideas and I leave feeling refreshed and ready to write more!

Here are 15 ways Modern Art Galleries can inspire writers and authors.

(1) Writing Exercise

Sit in front of a piece of art/installation/painting and write what you see. Describe the piece and what it says to you. Modern art is fantastic for this because you can’t just say “It’s a portrait of a young woman with a dog”. Often the pieces are entirely based on your interpretation. Sometimes plain words will suffice. A few weeks ago at the Tate Modern, my notes say “body parts on a baking tray” and “jackdaw and hooded crow skewered by arrows”. I bet you can see those images!

(2) Use as a setting in your novel

Go and notice all the physical details of the place, the various rooms, how you could use them. Would your characters meet here in the vast white open space of the main hall? or in one of the obscure video dark rooms with disturbing images on screen?

(3) Write notes from the display descriptions

Just copy down phrases that touch you in some way. I did this at the Tate Modern a few weeks ago: “I work until enough of my art has flowed into its body” (Jean Arp). What images do these words conjure up for you?

(4) Free associate from one of the pieces

Just write down all the words that come to mind. Do it in a mind map format so you can spiral off in all directions from each word. One of the evocative pieces at the Tate was “30 Pieces of Silver” by Cornelia Parker. The words bring to mind Judas and betrayal (for me anyway!) but it was a hanging installation of circular displays featuring discarded silverware crushed by a bulldozer. You could free associate on that alone for hours!

(5) Listen for dialogue

Certain types of people go to Modern Art Galleries, but you don’t know who they are until you listen. Sit in the lobby or a public area and listen for snatches of conversation. Write notes on what you hear. This will give you plenty more material and surprising insights into what others think of the piece.

(6) Browse the giftshop for marketing ideas

I have found Modern Art Galleries have great gift shops with quirky ideas for items related to static pieces of art. Can you use some of these ideas in your own marketing?

(7) Use it as your Artists Date

This is an idea from Julia Cameron’s  The Artist’s Way (brilliant book!). As creatives, we give out a lot of our ideas and creative juice which needs replenishing sometimes. An Artist’s Date is time out to refill our creative wells and allow new ideas to surface and spark.

(8) Change your writing scene

Sometimes the act of writing somewhere else can help you with ideas and different sections of your project. Buy a coffee in the Gallery cafe and sit and write for an hour.

(9) Use it as a venue for a meeting with another author

Sometimes we can spend so much time writing alone, it is good to connect. Modern Art Galleries often have great meeting places so you can hang out and chat, and then wander round the galleries together doing some of the exercises above.

  1. Louise Bourgeois Maman
    Louise Bourgeois ‘Maman” (Mother) which I first saw in the Tate Modern and found disturbing but have never forgotten

    (10) Understand you need to get your work out there. 

Many writers get stressed by the slow progression of their book and the difficulties they face along the way. They may procrastinate over every last sentence and potential problem. Modern art is a good wake up call for this as you will hate a lot of the work displayed, and you will wonder how the hell that could possibly be a) finished and b) worthy of an art gallery. But the artist has said “this is my work” and people can like it or not. It is out there and people are reacting which is better than having it in a studio or computer away from the world.

(11) Understand the Body of Work

I love this phrase and feel that as authors we need to embrace it as visual artists do. This book we are working on is one piece of a whole lifetime, a whole body of work embracing all we are and all we want to express in the written word. I don’t think the successful visual artists stop and obsess over one piece, they are moving onto the next. Get that book out of you and move onto the next one! Embrace them all as experiments along the way!

(12) Research one of the Artists for a character sketch

Pick one of the pieces you like (or hate) and write down the name of the artist. When you get home, Google them and find out more about their work and their history. Use this for a character sketch. You may be surprised by what you find. For example, I am fascinated by Patricia Piccinini whose very cute Vespa characters I fell in love with at one exhibition, but delving further into her work, you find she does disturbing mutated creatures as well.

(13) Research one of the Artists and evaluate their online presence

Visual artists need a ‘platform’ as much as authors do. How else can you sell work and get exhibitions and press coverage. Google one of the artists and evaluate their online presence. Do they use multi-media? Do they blog? Have they had media attention? How can you learn from them?

(14) Use your visit to inspire a blog post

Your blog needs new content and it gives you an excuse to write! This post is my own example.

(15) Be silly

I find some modern art utterly ridiculous! As authors we need to be a little silly sometimes and not take ourselves so seriously! The galleries often have children’s areas with play things or just take a friend and laugh at whatever takes your fancy. I took my husband once and we ended doing tracings on coloured paper with crayons on one exhibit (it was interactive!) and bouncing off huge white foamy trees. Fun, fun, fun!

Images: My own + Flickr Creative Commons AdampAdam and Flickr CC Dr000

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  1. says

    Hi Sophie, glad you also like the metal spider – I have never forgotten it!
    It turns out there are a number of them around the world – interesting artist!

    Thanks, Joanna

  2. K.M. Weiland says

    My first stories were inspired by paintings on a decorative plate collection. It’s wonderful how interrelated all of the arts are. One form feeds off another: it’s an endless circle of inspiration!

  3. says

    I love all these suggestions. It’s so important to get out of our skins and out of our perspective. Being inspired by another medium is such a great way to send our creativity in a new direction…

  4. says

    Nice post Joanna. I was lucky recently to visit the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin for an exhibition of the works of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. I had been in the house where they had lived together in Mexico City during a visit there some years ago and had found the work of Kahlo particulary stimulating.
    This time again I found it really exhilirating and for days afterwards I found myself thumbing through the brochure and looking at the photographs of the paintings again and again. I guess it was because there was so much more to the lives of the duo than being painters of pictures. They were true revolutionaries of their time, living on the edge and their paintings were no more than the putting into form of their experiences, their thoughts and their ideas. This, I suppose is what we as writers are trying to do as well.

  5. says

    Delurking to say I love modern art to the point of obsession, find it endlessly rewarding for a lot of the reasons you do… I try to get down to the Tate as often as I can, at least every year.

    In fact I’m so obsessed about it I wrote a novel set in it the world of modern art. There’s even a scene at Tate Modern with the giant spider! (I actually saw another of the spiders in Japan when I visited there a few years ago)

    Also I find it great to not only look at visual art but have a go yourself as a change and a rest from writing – but that tends to be photography in my case as I’m too clumsy with a brush!

    • says

      Thanks for de-lurking John :) I’m glad you also found the giant spider so fascinating – I also set scenes in these places. I have a scene at the British Museum in the recent religious relics exhibition – not so much modern as ancient art but really fascinating! We can take inspiration wherever we find it!

  6. says

    What a lovely post Joanna – I really enjoyed reading it. I too use galleries as really good thinking space, and I was interested to see that several of the images you posted were by artists whose work I love (notably Cornelia Parker and Louise Bourgeois). The fascinating thing about both these artists is that their work is compelling even if you can’t see it – just describing what it is shows the quality of the underlying ideas. I had a wonderful writing opportunity last year – to choose 13 British Artists that children should know – for a book by Prestel. You will see that I included Parker – and got to meet her. http://amzn.to/britarts

  7. Kathy says

    Great ideas here Joanna! As an ever improving junior artist and an enthusiastic author writing my first book I can’t wait to try these out! ^-^ thanks much for your help, yet again. =)


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