Why do all art galleries have white walls? One of the many unfortunate aspects of the worldwide monoculture of globalisation has been the creation of the non-place. Step into a Starbucks in Taiwan or anywhere and you step into every Starbucks in the world. They’re all the same. So why do art galleries all have this homogenous look? After all, aren’t these the spaces that contain the stuff that art world PR make such grand claims for? Why do art galleries, if they are so radical, allow themselves to become non-spaces?
The white walls weren’t always the template, of course. Before the domination of International Style Modernism (and after galleries moved out of stately homes), art galleries tended to look like Edwardian parlours. The walls would be covered in patterned wallpaper and the rooms would be furnished. The sober, brutal minimalism of Modernism demanded that anything extraneous be sliced away with Occam’s razor and that meant the wallpaper and clutter had to go.
So now every single art gallery in the world has bare white walls. This uniformity isn’t all bad. One shouldn’t ignore the usefulness of ritual and, especially as capital ‘a’ Art has replaced religion, the standard look of a space compels a certain attitude on the viewer. But the other argument, that the white wall allows for minimal distraction from the art work, is less interesting in the internet age. When one looks online at an image file at its source one sees it suspended over a clean white space (or do I mean non-space?). The white gallery wall has been succeeded by the white blank background. In the age of free digital information the physical space takes over in importance from the virtual space. Art galleries, like everything else in the physical world, need to distinguish themselves from anything that can be done better or just as well online. The white wall, or something very like it, exists online. This alone means that galleries must move with the times. That the vast majority haven’t tried to avoid being non-places already speaks of a deep complacency in the art world.
The self deprecating starkness of the white wall is no longer anywhere near exciting as it might once have been. It is now the template for everything from hotels to google. The pretence of the submissive, international art space is worthless in the face of globalisation. A place needs to exist on its own to have meaning, rather than be another cell in an international network. White is all the colours of the spectrum at once. It’s time for the space of the art gallery to stop trying to be all things to all men.