Behind-the-Scenes of Rebels With a Cause
Although I’ve been to a number of museums and even had my own photography work exhibited, I have always been curious about the behind-the-scenes process curating a gallery show. Last week, I documented the installation of Rebels With a Cause and learned just how meticulous the process is.
Recently, the Asheville Art Museum rented the traveling show Rebels With a Cause from the Huntsville Museum of Art. This show is part of the Stellars’ Collection of Art by American Women, which is composed of more than 600 paintings, drawings and sculptures by over 360 women. The Stellar couple’s enormous collection contains work done by females who were rebelling against the convention of the time by exhibiting with their male contemporaries. It concentrates on the years between 1850 and 1930, which the couple believes to be one of the most neglected periods for the history of American women’s art. Rebels With a Cause itself is comprised of 53 works that “embody the early influence that French Impressionism and its precursor, the Barbizon Style, had on American art.” The show includes accomplished floral compositions, still-life, elegant portraits, engaging genre scenes, and landscapes both intimate and panoramic, reflecting many different regions of the country and world.
Museums’ method of finding traveling shows to rent and curate is old-fashioned. While there are websites announcing the shows, typically museums or collectors circulate newsletters to announce when an exhibit is available for loan. While the Asheville museum often creates and curates its own shows, it also won’t pass up the opportunity to exhibit a distinguished show such as this one.
After Jake Ehrlund, the Asheville Museum’s Preparator, returned from the long drive to and from Huntsville to pick up the collection, he and other helpers began unpacking and organizing the show. Some of the pieces were already grouped together, such as paintings done in Europe, those first painted in America, works specifically of portraiture and landscapes paintings. Organizing every piece for a large exhibit is a two-day process as Jake has to take into consideration how pieces “talk” to each other in a single room or between rooms or how colors among different pieces “talk” to each other. For this one, interns even had to paint the entire gallery beforehand so that the vibrant paintings all in ornate gold frames could stand out better.
Once Pamela Myers, the Executive Director, approved of the arrangement, they began hanging pieces. Fifty-nine inches from the floor to the midpoint of each hanging piece is the norm as this is the average eye-level view. Not only did the installers have to exactly measure the height of each piece to put it perfectly at eye-level, they also had to measure the space between each painting. To insure that each painting works together with the ones around it to create a cohesive show, every piece must be a certain distance away from the others, and the installers had to draw out and then precisely measure to the centimeter each one so that they all worked together.
One of the final steps is setting up the lighting. The museum workers measure light in “foot-candles,” which is a unit of luminance where one “foot-candle” equals one lumen per square foot, measuring the amount of visible light from a source. For works done on paper, lights have to be set specifically at 5-7 foot candles for preservation reasons as too much light over time can damage pieces on paper. But, as paintings are less prone to light damage, lighting for this exhibit of paintings is much less painstaking.
Finally, Jake did a final run-through making sure each piece was level, every inch of the walls was painted, and all paintings were arranged according to their plan. Then a title and text banner was added to the entrance and the show was ready for viewing. The entire process from de-installation, acquisition, and installation takes “only” a week, though it is a week of meticulous planning, organizing and installing.
Shows often can only stay up 3-4 months before they need to “rest” in the dark for a bit for preservations reasons. This exhibit, Rebels With a Cause, opens to the public September 28, 2013 in the Appleby Memorial Foundation Gallery and will run until January 26, 2013.