Where’d the Art Go? Deinstalling and Installing Exhibitions

Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives

What happens when the museum changes exhibits? Why are galleries closed for one or two weeks? What is actually happening behind-the-scenes? Today, I will explain the process of deinstalling and installing an exhibit and the work that goes into making them spectacular! 

When an exhibit closes, what is the first thing to be done? If the works are borrowed or on loan, meaning they came from outside the museum, before anything can even start getting packed we take a close look at the condition of the works. This means checking frames, ensuring the works on paper haven’t slipped their hinges, and that sculptures weren’t altered in any way. Essentially, that the artworks are leaving the museum looking the same way as they did coming in. If it is a traveling show, like the current American Impressionism: Treasures from the Daywood Collection, a binder travels in the crate that lists reports from each institution with detailed notes on each artwork featured in the exhibit. Ideally, the pages would be blank, but the more locations the art travels to, the more likely it is that it has some minor damages to be noted. After the conditions are noted, all the packing materials emerge to begin wrapping the artwork. If the works were available for purchase and bought, they go into the Paradigm Gallery and await their new owner. If the works are traveling, they go into crates and are sent to the next location. If the works are from the museum’s own permanent collection, like the works in By Women, they get carted back to the vault and properly stored. 

Once the artwork is cleared, to prevent any damage to them, the gallery walls are patched and painted. All nails and hanging devices are removed, the holes spackled, and, once dry, painted over. Typically, we only paint where we patched, in order to save paint. About once a year, when the walls are starting to look like swiss cheese, we do paint the entire wall. When we have an exhibit that is all sculptures, meaning there is nothing on the walls to hide the imperfections, we make sure to leave time to paint entirely. This is particularly important as sculpture is lit to dazzle, and any marks on the wall could detract from its display. Summer of Glass is a good example! When it comes to sculptures, we only paint the pedestals, or the bases that support the work, at the opening of the exhibit, not at the close because they go back into storage for a while. Pedestals are laborious to move, so they get scuffed and dinged and almost always need a layer of paint before an exhibit opens.  

Once all the paint is dry, the artwork for the incoming exhibit can make its way out to the galleries for display, and the condition reports are completed. The gallery walls get lined with carpet squares to keep both the art and the floor damage-free. At this point, the curator of the exhibit comes into the gallery and begins “laying out” the art, meaning they decide where the works are hung or placed. With traveling exhibits or loans, we may be required to use every work included, and these are the trickiest exhibits to lay out! With exhibits from the permanent collection, it is an entirely different process. Months of planning goes into selecting the works: lists are compiled, artwork is prepared (works on paper are stored flat and need to be framed), and additions/subtractions are made. It is normal to pull a large number of works but not use anywhere from 25-30% of the artwork selected. I have had many occasions where I desperately wanted an artwork to be included but it just didn’t fit with the rest of the works, whether due to size, subject, or style. Once it is talked over and approved by Charles, FWMoA President & CEO, hanging the artwork can begin.  

BUT… we’re not quite ready yet. Before we get too far, the technical team must know how big the title wall is and if there are any text panels that require extra space. If the text panels are large enough, we measure them as an artwork on the wall so that everything is evenly spaced. Once we know text and title wall size, how does the museum hang the artwork? Each gallery has its own map with measurements, which saves us from having to recalculate and repeat work every time we install. To evenly space the artwork, we take the full wall measurement and then subtract the width of every artwork on that wall. The leftover amount is then divided by the amount of spaces in between the works, which always ends up being the number of artworks +1. As soon as that is calculated, we figure out where the hooks will go. All museums are a little different, but we hang artwork at 57 in. to the center of the art. This is an average height for adults and children to view the art. The formula on how high to hang the hooks is: the height of the frame divided in half, add 57, and then subtract the measurement of the hanging device to the top of the frame. Some frames have a rail along the top that nails can hang directly on and nothing gets subtracted! This formula is used for each individual piece, which helps to explain why we need a week or two to install! It’s a lot of math!

If the exhibit has any sculpture, like Hope Dies Last: The New Armenia, there is a process for that as well (whew, we have a lot of processes!). For Hope Dies Last, because the sculptures/artifacts are small and therefore easy to touch or take, we install them on the last day, and secure them with plexi cases overtop the pedestal. If an exhibit is a lot of small sculpture, either there is a lot of moving art back and forth from the vault or the vitrines are installed earlier than usual. Some sculptures can remain out because the weight and materials make it difficult to move, like the glass works in A Quest for More: Bold Visions in Glass Sculpture (above). These large sculptures don’t require vitrines, and are often freestanding, meaning they don’t require a pedestal or plinth to rest on. A lot of the glass works require two or three people to move! 

When all of the art is in its place, whether that be on the wall or on a pedestal, labels are tacked up and then lights are adjusted. See here for how we light art. The final touch that brings the exhibit to an “Ah ha!” moment is when the title wall vinyl gets installed on the title wall! 

Paint the Town places the title wall text for “By Women”. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Now knowing this, the next time you stop in for a visit and a gallery is in transition, see if you can determine what point of the process we’re in! 

Leave a Reply