When it comes to museums, Hampton Roads ranks as one of the richest regions in country. In the Southeast, you just can't beat it. Still, it's not always easy to take on some of the contemporary art shows found at such places as the Chrysler Museum of Art, the Peninsula Fine Arts Center and the Muscarelle Museum of Art - not to mention the contemporary folk art at Old Dominion University and Colonial Williamsburg. So here's a checklist of four simple things you can do to tame even the toughest exhibit.

* Don't be intimidated. Strange, riddle-strewn artwork has been a fact of life even since the Impressionists convinced the world that the defining characteristic of art was newness. But don't let the confounding lack of rules make you feel stupid. In the 1800s, hundreds of thousands of people flooded big art exhibits. It was popular entertainment then, and it still is now. You just have to embrace your role as an explorer moving through territory that's uncharted.

* Keep an open mind. Unexpected materials have become part and parcel of an aesthetic world where the best art is made of nothing. So don't be surprised to find nothing - or anything - hanging from the wall before you. And don't be put off by the contemporary emphasis on ideas and emotions rather than visual beauty. Good can be good even when it's not visually pleasing.

* Trust your instincts. Any time an artwork makes you stop and look longer than a few seconds, there's probably good reason. So plant your feet and try to figure out why it grabbed your attention. That means asking questions - especially how and why - and being willing to change your answers.

* Study up. Knowing something about the artist or the style of artwork may not be essential, but often it can help. So read the labels, go online and pick up an art history book on occasion. What you learn could lead to a breakthrough in the way you look at art. So can the simple act of putting in a little practice.