Art exhibits can take years to complete. These 3 Utah curators told us how
‘Everything that you see on the wall is a really deliberate choice': Looking at the many stages of exhibit curation at some of Utah’s best art museums
SALT LAKE CITY — Behind the newly painted walls, the polished explanations and the framed paintings, art exhibits have a secret life.
Before an art exhibition is ever open to the public, there are myriad things that need to be done.
“The timeline can very easily be two to three years,” explained Leslie Anderson, curator of European, American and regional art at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, during a recent phone interview. “And it could certainly be longer.”
Anderson’s most recent exhibition, “Power Couples,” focuses on art in pairs throughout history. It opened at UMFA on July 11 and will be on display until Dec. 8.
“I’ve actually been working on that for over four years,” Anderson added.
So what exactly goes into an art exhibition? And why on earth does it take so long? The Deseret News spoke with several local curators to understand just that. Their answers made it clear that the final exhibition is just the tip of the iceberg.
Every exhibition is a team effort that involves numerous museum staff, but ideas for exhibitions generally start with a museum's curators. For Anderson, ideas often come while researching a different exhibition.
“I am a very engaged researcher,” Anderson said, “and my goal is always to learn as much as possible about the collections I oversee.”
Once the idea is formed, the museum goes into planning mode. Laura Hurtado, executive director at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art and former curator for the Church History Museum, stressed the important role a museum’s audience plays in exhibition planning.
“An exhibition organized well already has an audience in mind,” Hurtado said.
Besides planning for a specific audience, an exhibition idea must be agreed upon by a museum's interdepartmental team of educators, directors, conservators and designers. Meetings to plan the exhibition continue throughout the process.
“There's a lot of idea planning,” Hurtado said. “Everything that you see on the wall is a really deliberate choice.”
Selecting and acquiring pieces
Once the idea for an exhibition is developed, the curator must select the actual artwork. For a recent BYU Museum of Art exhibit on artist Mahonri Young, head curator Ashlee Whitaker made those selections.
“I spent … months and months, just going through different sketches, and trying to choose which ones (to use), because we only have so much wall space,” Whitaker explained. “So that takes quite a bit of time.”
At UMFA, Anderson develops a checklist for the pieces she wants to use, then narrows that list as the exhibit becomes more defined. In this process, the audience identified in earlier planning becomes extremely helpful.
“It is always important to negotiate … what the desires are for the visitors,” Anderson explained. “There are certain highlights of our collection that people want to see, and rightly so. And so I have to negotiate that with stories that we tell in the galleries.”
Often, an exhibition is planned around pieces in a museum's permanent collection. In many cases, though, a museum doesn’t have all the pieces a given exhibit might need. In that case, the curator works with the museums and private collectors who own the works in order to get them on display. In one of Hurtado’s exhibitions, they borrowed from 16 major museums.
All this planning helps make the setup of the exhibition go smoothly, but sometimes last-minute changes have to be made.
“There might be (a piece) that just doesn't look right when it's actually in the galleries, and you might have to cut an object,” Anderson said. “You have to remain nimble, you have to remain flexible.”
When pieces are selected for display, the curator works with museum staff to keep the pieces safe from both theft and decay. Light can fade pigment in paintings or textiles, for example, and incorrect framing could tear the edge of a work. According to Anderson, most paper and textile works can only be displayed for short time periods.
How do museums protect art from light damage while still allowing the public to see them? Hurtado said UMOCA may choose to dim the lights in an exhibit, limit the types of pieces they display, or limit the show's length.
For “Power Couples,” Anderson had to navigate the balance between conserving a work and putting it on display.
“(There was) work from our permanent collection that I very much wanted to show to the public, but they were in storage for a reason,” Anderson said. “They may have needed conservation treatment, they may have needed a new frame.”
Sometimes art is too damaged to be displayed, but often it just needs some careful work to restore it to its former beauty. The curator works with the museum’s conservator to evaluate the condition of the work and make a plan to restore it. She said multiple paintings in the “Power Couples” exhibit were first sent to restoration specialists in Denver.
Design work and display
While every part of the curatorial process is important, finalizing how to display the works of art, along with educational programs and interpretive material, has the potential to make or break an exhibition.
“It's always an exciting challenge to look at your checklist and see how it translates into the programs that we use throughout the galleries, and then into the physical space,” Anderson shared.
“And thinking about the relationship between objects — the aesthetic relationship with adjacent work — there are instances in which we might need to alter the physical space,” she continued. “So that component of the job is actually a significant one.”
The physical display is key to how an audience will experience a work of art. But for an exhibition, the display of information is just as vital.
“(Something) that really isn’t seen is the research and the expanding understanding of the objects that occurs before an exhibition,” Anderson said.
Of course, much of that research takes place well before the design of the exhibition — curators are constantly researching potential exhibits.
But the exhibit's research isn’t just to satisfy the curator's curiosity, or impress a potential academic journal. It translates directly to how an exhibit's artwork is displayed. Anderson spends a lot of her research and planning time thinking — about how the research is presented, and whether it's digestible to the public. That research, she said, can become the bridge between the audience and the art.
So next time you visit an art exhibition, look beyond the art hanging on the walls. Look at the walls themselves, and their color and placement. Look at the fonts on the art descriptions. Look at how the pieces are organized. If you're seeing it, chances are a curator put a lot of thought into it.
“There are so many details that add up to make the exhibits what they are,” Whitaker said. “Every show is unique.”