So, a couple of weekends ago I went out to the Dowse with a few good friends to see Plastic Māori. I noticed two things:
If you say the gallery's official name (TheNewDowse) as its typographical treatment indicates you should (ie. kinda slurred) it sounds quite close to TheNudeHouse (that's 'nude' as in 'neewd', not 'nooed')
Nooed or neewd, the Dowse needs more signage.
Since opening they've made efforts to help visitors find the entrance; the door eluded me on my first visit, and while I'm not great shakes on those IQ tests where you have to manipulate shapes and predict what-comes-next, it shouldn't be that hard to figure out how to get into a public building.
Once you've made it in, it's easy to find the shop or the cafe, or the reception desk, or that space where sometimes they have workshops and children's activities, and sometimes they don't. But it's helluva hard to find the galleries.
The entrance to the main gallery spaces is occluded by a glass door; once you figure out that's where you're meant to go, there's no schematic to help you see what's on where. After confirming that the big dark rooms with floors littered with open umbrellas were not Plastic Māori, we sent some scouts off to the far gallery (the main exhibition space in TheOldDowse) who, when they returned, confirmed the show wasn't there either.
So we backtracked to the reception area and went up the concrete block steps (the access way to the upstairs galleries, also not visible from the entrance to the building, and behind your back when you're at the desk). While we found the show without effort once we made it to the first floor, I didn't spot any signage saying the show was up there.
I'm not saying that the Dowse doesn't have signage. It's likely that it does. What I am saying is that 4 people came to visit a show and couldn't figure out where it was. Four people who go to galleries a lot. One of your target markets, in fact. In the world of user-testing that would be considered an epic fail, and would have you rethinking your design pretty damn quick.
Many other galleries have similar problems. It is remarkably hard to spot the Christchurch Art Gallery's temporary exhibition spaces from their massive foyer. In fact, I think it's often the foyers that create the problems. Big spaces are needed to raise money through venue hire - but during the daylight hours when the public comes to visit the gallery (the point, let's recall, of having the place) they becoming empty and often intimidating voids that prevent you from immediately seeing the whole point of you being there - the art.
I think of all the galleries in New Zealand that the Tauranga Art Gallery succeeds the best here; you move straight into the exhibition space, without even having to run the gauntlet of the reception desk. I'll be curious to see what City Gallery and Auckland Art Gallery do in this respect: Auckland promises a "bold new gallery main entrance" and City Gallery's redevelopment involves the creation of the "Russell Hancock Gallery, replacing the existing cinema [which will] connect directly to the foyer, increasing options for hosting functions and events." I'm looking forward to finding out what artworks I clap my eyes on the first time I visit.