The Foreign and the Familiar


It was, I thought at the time, rather like going to church. The spare, sweeping space of the galleries, the click of heels across marble and wood, the sound of parents shushing children into silence and the sight of impassive, stolid guards lined up along the walls like ushers felt familiar, even if the painting and sculpture did not.

I was young and slightly timid, well-educated but inexperienced in the arts.  With an eye still incapable of discerning distinctions and little appreciation for technique, my first experience of a “real” art museum felt like a visit to a foreign country.  I might as well have been in Tanganyika, a country that still existed the year I found myself plucked from my familiar, everyday world and transported to the National Gallery of Art.


Previously, my museum-going had been confined to the Des Moines Art Center.  Building additions, including one designed by I.M. Pei, have changed its appearance over the years and expanded the space available for exhibits, but in its original incarnation it was positively cozy. With creamy stone facades, immaculate lawns and lush trees, it could have been any upper-middle class home in any upper-middle class Iowa neighborhood. It was as familiar as the neighborhood playground or the Dairy Queen, and as comfortable. It played to its audience, and did it well. Continue reading