Art Curators: Behind-the-Scenes Designers of Art Exhibits

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An artist's home as a gallery exhibit. Rembrandts hus -sitting room" by Gunnar Bach Pedersen.

Sometimes an artist’s home serves as a gallery exhibit, such as Rembrandts ‘hus-sitting room.’ Image by Gunnar Bach.

Have you ever wondered why the paintings in an art gallery hang in a particular order? Why the lighting often seems muted? Who actually decided to hang or place what where and why?

There is at least one man or woman (and usually a lot more) behind the scenes who decides how to display the exhibition, including how to hang the paintings or place the sculptures.

It’s a very specialized science as well as an art to arrange a gallery exhibit that attracts the general public and educates at the same time.

These highly-trained people, known as art curators, are behind the scenes, but must know both their work and the work that they display in preparation for the big task of changing an exhibit in an art gallery or museum.

Who is an Art Curator?

An art curator manages, controls, oversees and sometimes totally creates an gallery/exhibition installation. Why? Quite simply, the curator is the person who knows the work being displayed. He or she knows how to best display it, and knows the inherent value of the work being exhibited and what security risks to undertake.

As pointed out by ArtInteractive, Curators must all oversee the integrity of each item to make sure they are preserving and storing them correctly.’ For example, the curator would have to know the dollar value of a particular work of art.

Hanging Art with Security and Preservation in Mind

Preservation and security concerns strongly influence how and where to display a work of art. The  curator may even encase a high-profile or fragile work in a protective glass display case, like Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) internationally-famous Mona Lisa (painted between 1503 and 1506), which hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci, is displayed under glass and well barracaded from viewers.

Curators display Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa under glass and well barricaded from viewers. Image by Dcoetzee.

This work possesses a vibrant history of thefts and abuse like the woman who, in 2009, hurled a mug of English breakfast tea at the painting. Fortunately, as journalists Peter Allen and Ian Sparks in Mail Online noted, the bulletproof glass prevented any damage to the painting.

Visitor flow through the gallery space and security concerns obviously affect to hang an exhibit. The more valuable the works are in the exhibit, the more likely that the paintings will be hung further apart to allow more people to view the work at once without crowding the space and/or causing potential damage to the work itself.

Using the Gallery Space to Educate

‘Museums are designs for learning,’ writes Shari Tishman, lecturer in the Arts in Education Program at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Whether intentionally or not, museums embody views about what’s worth learning, and the way that artworks, objects, and historical material are presented—from exhibitions to architecture to wall texts—embody views about how learning happens.’

Schools and classrooms are formal elements of education. Taking a student (regardless of age) out of the classroom and into a museum or art gallery provides the student with an informal approach to learning. Education then becomes individual, hands-on and, in many cases, more enjoyable and memorable. Students remember their experiences in museums and therefore the knowledge they gain is better retained.

This idea of engaging the viewer is an important element in how to mount or display an exhibition. We live in a society that likes, in fact needs, to be entertained in order to learn. Galleries and museums take this fact into consideration when mounting their exhibits.

The Art of Hanging an Art Exhibit

Hanging an art exhibit is an art in itself. It requires a curator’s knowledge of the work, including its history, value, and how the viewers will perceive the work– and much more. An art exhibit, or any museum exhibit for that matter, is a study in perception, conservation, preservation, security and, quite simply, what works best.

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