Should visitors be allowed to touch art at art shows? I hear a resounding "NO" from many artists out there. The biggest fears seem to be that dirt and natural oils on our hands will transfer to our art or that a piece will get damaged or broken. We want to preserve our artworks after all.

But I also hear a few artists saying "yes" it may be okay to touch art - sometimes, and in a gentle manner.

I had my fibre art lichen at a show recently, not an art show, but as part of a museum's open house. Museums these days are implementing more and more interactive displays, recognizing the public wants more involvement than just looking. People want to touch objects, maybe even hold them, augmenting that participatory feeling.

Fibre art in particular seems to invite people to caress it, even if we don't want them to. It's tactile. It's all about texture. Wools and textiles convey a warmth that reaches out to us.  People want to stroke its softness, pet it like they would a cat or dog. They want to interact with art - whether sculpture, paintings, fibre, paper, pottery or another artform - and especially when a piece stirs up emotions. They build a connection through touch.

I had no doubt lots of people would touch my fibre art at the museum's open house. Especially children, as the sense of touch is very much part of their development. They just reach out and feel it, sometimes gently, sometimes more roughly. And while I didn't want to say no to them, as I understand this need, I did want to make sure they understood they had to be gentle.

Most of the parents asked permission first. Several stopped their children when they saw those little hands reaching. Other times the parents touched without asking, their children following suit. That I believe is inappropriate, parents should set an example by asking first. Granted, I didn't put out a sign saying "Do Not Touch" or "Ask Before you Touch" but perhaps it's because I'm aware the protocol is to ask and not just assume touching is acceptable.

Many people rely on their sense of touch to interpret an object - for them touch, not sight, provides information about the object's properties. Looking at something that appears smooth and shiny isn't enough, it's the fingers resting on or stroking the object that confirms what it feels like: hard, maybe slippery, cool or cold. We learn from a very young age the exploratory powers of touch.

A potter I know provided a textured bowl at shows that one could run their hands over, relieving parents of anxiety about their child - or themselves - touching and breaking, and satisfying a sense of curiosity. What a great solution. And of course for anyone who is visually impaired, well, touch is of course very important.

Maybe us fibre artists need to consider alternatives to satisfy those who wish to touch, to provide a sensory experience that goes beyond just sight. A "look but don't touch" expectation doesn't always work. After all, we fibre artists understand all too well the attraction to tactile objects to make our art, and yet we expect the public to keep their hands off the finished pieces. 

Yes, art shows are primarily visual, but perhaps having some raw materials on hand, or tools used to make the art, or a few pieces of art in a "hands-on" area would satisfy those itching to poke and prod. Then the "Please Do Not Touch" signs can be posted in the other areas. We'll never be able to eliminate touching completely no matter how hard we try.

And while we're on the subject, why not think more about how to reach all the senses, not just sight and touch, and create a truly multi-sensory art show.


"Music is full of longing and movement.  Painting should be the same." I read this quote in Hundred and Thousands: The Journals of...